There is an ancient story about how the west wind was born on the back of a she-owl. Her name was Bubo, the Queen of something or other and she was going to die or have some sort of minor operation and… Unfortunately, I don’t remember the rest. What is a she-owl anyway? Female owls are hens as far as I know. Anyway, I was meaning to introduce this piece with an intriguing folkloric literary device to connect the subject of wind and owls, but I obviously failed. Let’s just start over and forget this ever happened.
Wind and owls don’t get along especially well. This has long been known. When a stiff breeze travels through the branches it sets up a moaning “hoo, hoo, hoo” sound that goes on all day. The owls are more than a bit jealous over this competitive “hooting.” They have to wait until the wind dies down at night to do their hooting. On windy nights they have to remain silent and run the risk of a sudden fatal “hoot” attack. No…wait a minute, this isn’t working either. It has never been proven that owls are capable of jealousy. They do die of starvation, car strikes, gunshots, arrows, and farmer guns but never from over-hooting. Please allow me one more try.
I came upon an indignant Great Horned Owl sitting on a dead branch one recent January afternoon. (Hey, this sounds better already). It was a very blustery day. By all rights, given the time of year and all, the stiff breeze should have been bitter and cutting but it was uncharacteristically balmy. I had just emerged out of the brush with all the subtlety of a wounded elephant – panting from the effort and even a little bit sweaty. I was in the process of “taking the path yet unmade,” and in the process of regretting it, when I suddenly realized that an owl was gazing down on me. (O.K., we’re good…you can relax now).
The bird was uncharacteristically calm and did not attempt to fly away. I’m sure he heard me coming from a mile away and could easily have slipped away as owls are wont to do. After giving me the stink eye, this character simply closed his eyes and resumed his resting stance. At least it was intended to be a resting stance but looked to be anything but restful. His position was on an exposed branch immediately adjacent to a Cottonwood trunk. Had the wind been a south one, the perch would have shielded him well. Because the wind was issuing from the west, however, it was wreaking havoc with his style. It was buffeting him from behind and pushing up his horns to an extreme extent. The edge of his facial disc was flaring out as each gust passed through. Back feathers were parting like the Red Sea. In spite of all bold attempts to maintain composure, this owl was losing his battle for dignity.
Great Horned Owls do not have horns, of course, so please excuse my use of the term in the previous paragraph (while you are at it please excuse my first two paragraphs as well). They are not ears either. The ear openings are located at the side behind the facial disc. These structures are merely ornamental feather tufts projecting off the top of the head. Their owners can operate them at will in order to express anger, fear, romance, or jealousy …oops, let’s forget the jealousy part, since that has not been proven. On this day the wind was having its way with them. It is not hard to see why Great Horned Owls are called what they are. Them is some devilish looking points my man (or is it my he-owl).
This bird is a probably a male, given his small stature and stubborn demeanor, so my “he” references are not arbitrary. His mate is in the vicinity, but she has the better sense to stick to thicker cover on such a day. Together they form the so-called “marsh owl” pair (dubbed by yours truly) that have nested in Cottonwood cavities in the nearby marsh for many years. The nesting season is only a few weeks away now, and the birds are getting ready to raise another crop of owlets.
I suggested, loudly, to the owl that he should seek better shelter. He turned his head in my general direction and returned a scornful glare. In so doing, his tufted “horns” were blown sideways in the breeze. The bird took on a new dignity that scorned the elements. “I am the great wind owl,” he appeared to say, “upon my grandmother’s back the west wind was born.”