For the Birds Radio Program: Hawk Owl

Original Air Date: Feb. 16, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about a magical encounter with a Hawk Owl. 3:50

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Last week something beautiful and wondrous happened to me, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I was driving home from Tower, Minnesota, and south of Virginia I took a detour to drive along Highway 7, which is prettier and slower than 53 and cuts through the heart of the Sax-Zim Bog. When I came to Stone Lake Road, I decided to check it out because now and again this winter I’ve found Great Gray Owls along it.

This time I didn’t see any Great Grays, but came upon Dave Evans’s blue van pulled over on the side of the road. So I stopped to say hi. Dave runs the banding station at Hawk Ridge every autumn, and spends his winter studying owls. He hopped out of the back of the van, holding in his hands one of the most beautiful birds in the universe, a Northern Hawk-Owl.

The Hawk Owls is perfect. Its feathers have the soft fullness of all owl feathers, but with the striking markings we’d more expect of an American Kestrel. Delicate white speckles on the black forehead, whitish gray facial discs, soft gray penciling on the breast and belly, wings and tail a rich chocolate flecked with vanilla, and lovely black eye spots on the back of its head make this bird exquisite beyond compare. But mere physical beauty is only a fraction of the Hawk Owls magnetic attraction. It is this bird’s spirit that draws me to it, a spirit embodied in its mesmerizing eyes.

Every Hawk Owl I’ve ever seen has looked deep into my eyes. While other owls sit erect, with ramrod posture and forbidding stares, almost like cats, Hawk Owls lean forward with an eagerness and expressiveness more like a dog’s. Even though this one was tight in Dave’s grasp, it didn’t seem angry or alarmed, just a bit uncomfortable and confused by the situation. She looked into my eyes without hate or malice, and allowed me to touch her velvety feathers and even scratch her face, all the time looking at me with something akin to trust. Dave had just finished banding her, and when I had finished admiring her, he released her. Most owls, when released, instantly defecate, eloquently showing their utter contempt for us, and then fly far from view. But this little Hawk Owl flew right up to the nearest telephone pole. She alighted daintily, kestrel-like, delicately pumping her tail as she landed, and continued to study us with interest, looking like a plump kestrel, but friendlier.

I handle dead owls with some frequency, and despite feeling sad that they died, I enjoy showing children their enormous ears and their skinny necks beneath amazingly soft plumage. I’ve never seen a dead Hawk Owl, and hope I never do. I couldn’t bear to see the fire and life in those brilliant yellow eyes extinguished.

Dave drove off in hopes of more owls to band, but I stayed and watched this one for many more minutes, wishing I had a dead mouse or something tasty to offer her. I was already overdue at home, and finally had to say good-by and drive on, leaving her atop her post. I watched her watching me through the rearview mirror as I headed home, the softness of her feathers still clinging to my fingers, the magic of her gaze still penetrating my eyes, her beauty and grace still touching my heart, a blessing to last a lifetime.