The Great Horned Owl is the most common owl in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. We often hear them calling to each other, especially in the winter when the Creek is frozen and silent, but it’s rare to see them. They are nocturnal hunters, and their wings are lined with finely textured feathers that allow them to descend soundlessly onto their prey. When we are lucky enough to see them, it is usually dusk or dawn, when there is just enough light to catch its wings silhouetted against the sky as it flies between trees.
Owls hold a special significance to me. They bring me back to my childhood in Alaska, where they were often depicted on Tlingit totem poles. Owl was said to have flown to the ocean to bring back fire, burning his beak shorter in the process. Traditionally, the owl is associated with prophecy and wisdom, a messenger of the gods. Once, when I was a child, two snowy owls landed beside me in a hoar-frosted birch. I can still see their golden eyes.
So, when we sat down for dinner the other night and saw the owl in the tree next to our deck, I leapt across the room to grab my camera. I shot first through the window, because there was a good chance he wouldn’t be there long. Then I headed outside, walking as quietly as I could in my leather moccasin slippers over dried grasses and pine needles. I crossed the yard between snow drifts, looped around the fire pit, and slowly crept up under the deck. The owl was still there, watching me inch closer with my camera. He waited, framed against the conifer, as I snapped pictures in the dying light.
In my hurry to get out the door, I hadn’t thought to grab a coat or shoes. Standing in the wind, the temperature dropped until I could no longer hold my camera steadily. When I turned to go back, he launched off the branch and swooped into the silver tree. I was able to get a few more shots there before I went back in and then, from the window, watched him return to the same bare branch beside the cabin. This time, I quietly opened the sliding glass door and crept outside onto the deck. Again, he waited as I took pictures in the dying light, until he was barely visible. As we finished dinner, we could still see the dark shape of his body. And the next morning, there he was on the same branch. He finally flew off when Craig took Max outside.
We human beings tend to search for meaning in the natural world. I suppose that, historically, our survival has depended on the navigation of forces beyond our control (seasons and weather, the cycles of the moon, drought and floods, wildlife and hunting conditions, etc.) and, to some degree, that is still true. While most of us in this part of the world have indoor plumbing, heating, and electric lights, there is still much that is beyond our control. That need to understand, or make sense of the unknown, is passed from one generation to the next, founding religions and mythologies, making us a species of story-tellers.
Whether or not the Great Horned Owl carried a message from the gods or heralded an era of transition and its accompanying lessons, this was a highly unusual visitation. And a Rocky Mountain memory I’ll cherish.
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