Michiana Chronicles: The Great Horned Owl
Fortunately, a couple of folks walking a few days ago in the neighborhood spotted a ruckus, a frantic creature tangled in the net of a soccer goal at South Bend’s School Field. I heard later that one of them ran home and back with oven mitts and scissors and a blanket. Around that time, I looked up from the kitchen table and saw three neighbors across the street now, kneeling intently under the white beams of the goal. Covered by the blanket was some kind of creature the size of a small dog, unmoving and mysterious. The knotted twine of the goal net stretched away in all directions. One neighbor seemed mainly to reach down and steady the creature in the blanket, and the other leaned in more closely. I caught the glint of the blade as he handled the netting and worked to snip it away. When I crossed the street with my phone camera, I hoped I wasn’t about to document a neighborhood tragedy.
Later, I consulted our bird book. Cloaked in the blanket was a great horned owl, as large a bird as I’ve ever seen up close in the wild. They have huge yellow eyes dotted with black pupils, and brown and white coloring, ears tufts peaked like a cat’s, a formidable beak, and pale horizontal stripes across the chest, massive wings and claws and talons. They make all the birds that come by our bird feeder look like they were built with toothpicks and twigs.
The owl was in distress, and it wasn’t clear that it was going to be okay. Our two neighbors leaned in again and again, working cautiously and gently, cutting away the twine of the net, turning the owl and cutting away more. They moved back occasionally for safety and to help the creature stay calm. Finally, it seemed that all the netting was cut away. You could see it in bits on the ground there beside a long beautiful rabbit that had attracted the owl here in the first place.
More cautiously than ever, the two neighbors slid the blanket away from the owl, but it did not stand. It barely moved, mostly just its eyes. It looked grimly stressed, and each time it slowly closed its eyes I feared, I think we all feared, that there had been some sort of injury and that the owl was dying. I doubt any of us had ever seen another being, even in childbirth, more gently handled or more intently served, but we were all adults and we knew sometimes that is not enough. Still the owl would not fly off, and would not fly off. It would not even stand.
Soon a park ranger arrived and agreed to transport the owl to Humane Indiana Wildlife, a refuge center near Valparaiso. Each day by phone we heard better news. First, that the owl is going to be fine, and later that it’s ready to be released. They posted a fierce picture of the bird on their Facebook page.
Word had traveled through social media of the worthy efforts of our neighbors, and this became a point of local pride. Many were overjoyed to hear that the owl would be returned to the wild, to our very neighborhood where it had been living. On Wednesday, around dusk, maybe forty folks from the neighborhood gathered, and a ranger drove in from Bendix Woods with a big white cardboard box with airholes. The ranger directed us to stay back a respectful distance, and she opened the box. The owl stepped out and raised its wings, but it did not fly. Minutes passed, and it would not fly. Darkness grew, and some of the humans grew cold and walked home. Twenty, twenty-five minutes, we waited, speaking quietly to each other, guessing what could be done if the bird would never fly. And finally the owl shook its wide dark wings and stepped forward and up into the dim air and swept low across the field, then rising over the fence and the nearby houses, until we lost sight of it in the blackness of the neighborhood’s tallest trees. They say if you see one great horned owl this time of year, there’s probably another nearby. It’s time for them to pair up.
Music: "Wrong Foot Forward" by Flook