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A Fluffy herald of spring

 

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In various cultures over the ages owls have symbolized everything from good fortune and wisdom to impending disaster or death. And, of course, in recent decades a whole new generation of Harry Potter-loving children worldwide believes owls are the mysterious harbingers of mail delivery. In the world of me, the owl has, since my childhood, been a symbol of spring. I know, right? It seems incongruous that one person's haunting death-omen is another person's promise of excitement. It's not as bad as it sounds. The spring I turned 6 years old, my dad, a game warden for the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, brought home two great horned owl babies that had been accidentally dislodged from their nest. Dad got home that day, dipped his gloved hands into a mysteriously chirping box and pulled out two downy, white-gray owlets. Standing in front of our garage, with a wide-eyed puffball, dangling upside down by its talon-grip on each fist, Dad nodded to my brother and me and announced that the garage was, henceforth, an owl rookery and our job that spring and summer was to care for the two owlets. At that moment, as if on cue, the owlets tilted their heads around to glare at us right-ways, and I knew that this was going to be the coolest summer of my life thus far. It was, in fact, an education of its own kind. Dad determined by means mysterious to us kids that one owlet was a male and the other female. My brother promptly named the boy, Gus, but recognizing the importance of the occasion, I put considerable thought into naming the girl owl a name befitting her exotic preciousness. Eventually, I declared her name to be Fluffy. Hey, I was 6, what did I know about grandness? Turns out, Fluffy embodied my first lesson: Irony. Throw that whole "Wise Old Owl" image out of your head right now. Birds of prey are hardwired to do two things exceedingly well: kill and eat. To be best equipped to do both to feed their young, the females are generally both larger and more aggressive than the males. Fluffy was a magnificent example of her species and gender. Little Gus took food gently, well, gently for a wild-bred bird of prey who was deliberately not being tamed. If he occasionally hooked one of our little kid fingers with his beak while grabbing food from our hands, he'd only twist and pull a short while before relaxing his grip enough to allow us to keep our hands intact. Fluffy, on the other hand, eventually required full body armor to survive feeding time. By the time she had half of her pin feather, she could snatch food from us so fast that more often than not she'd catch a finger, thrash it around for a while and then try using her talons to sever the finger from her victim's hand. Food was food to her — dead gopher chunks or fingers off a small child squealing in pain at the top of her voice: "Fluuffyyy!" Fluffy lesson No. 2: If you ever find yourself being attacked by a bird of prey and you have to chose between contact with the beak end or the talon end, stick with the beak. It hurts, but the talons are like being attacked by a whirling dervish of Ginsu knives backed by the gripping power of a hydraulic vise. And when Fluffy was very hungry she'd stalk down the length of the garage rafters — glaring, hissing, body hunkered forward, wings flared, beak snapping — to where I was trying to balance myself and her dinner at the top of the ladder before the feathered rage of owl reached me. Fluffy lesson No. 3: Sometimes you have to hold your ground in the bald face of nature's rage. It's either that or kill yourself falling head-long down the ladder trying to get away and thus proving the owl was a harbinger of death afterall. Fluffy lesson No. 4: Large birds of prey require every part of a rodent in their diet to maintain a healthy digestive tract. Gross, but true. Fluffy lesson No. 5: If you're feeding that special someone in your life raw rodent chunks, it works best to freeze the rodent carcass before going at it with a hatchet. I won't go into the horrors of mishaps my brother and I suffered through before discovering that trick. Let it suffice to say that I could still identify the smell of dead gopher almost 40 years after the experience. Now, at the beginning of another spring, I miss the owls that kept me company all winter hooting through the dark as I did my morning and evening chores. But I know they're off in some secluded grove pairing up, preparing a nest and doing their wild Mother Nature thing to make more rodent ravagers and child stalkers. So maybe they are symbols of spring, the season of rebirth after all. (Life's a hoot at http://viewnorth40. Wordpress.com.)

 
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