Bird by Bird
Most mornings I get up a little before the sun to hear the song birds, few of which I can name, chirping and beginning to sing at the approaching dawn. An owl I have never seen, still slowly hoot hoots before calling it a night.
Quail live around my fenced-in property and are most often seen in the early evening, skittering about and pecking for food. In the winter when I have bird feeders out they will fly over the fence into the yard and eat seed that has fallen to the ground. A famous local nature artist, Steven Ball, gave me one of his signed quail prints. He painted a quail mural on the Bank of America in a nearby community. I did a story on the mural and an interview on Mr. Ball. Promoting the cute little critters seems a better choice than hunting them.
I often hear and see Canadian geese flying south through the valley in the springtime, generally in pairs, seldom in the bigger V-formation. In the fall they will come back through from the other direction. Right now the turkey vultures (also migratory) are doing a lay-over in this neighborhood en route from Canada to South America. Wild turkeys abound, like the Pilgrims ate. One neighbor has a whole flock on his property where they live quite safely, and did not mind being photographed for a Thanksgiving cover on my former newspaper. A common raptor in the Sierra foothills is the red-tailed hawk.
I did a report on pheasant hunting (non-judgmental) by children at a local pheasant farm in existence for that purpose. Beautiful white egrets stand like statues among the cattails. I sometimes see one flying up the river which I can hear but cannot see from my property. I also have a cheeky blue jay that occasionally flies into my kitchen to steal the cat’s food, the closest I have come to a friendship with a wild bird. She is raising her two chicks mostly in the environs of my yard. Such is life in the backcountry.
But for an amazingly up-close and personal relationship with a bird, biologist Stacey O’Brien has written about her 19-years with WESLEY THE OWL: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl. The young barn owl came into her care because he had a nerve-damaged wing and could not survive in the wild. Barn owls will only eat mice, three a day. In Wesley’s lifespan that came to more than 20,000 mice, all killed and delivered personally by his keeper. So deep was Wesley’s devotion that he was gravely concerned that Stacey ate such oddities as spaghetti and took the extreme measure of dropping a dead mouse into her mouth while she was sleeping, for her to have proper nourishment.
Owls do not get in water because they can become waterlogged and develop hypothermia. Taking cues from is “mom” Wesley would dunk his head under running water to “wash up” and even try, sometimes successfully, to share the shower with her. He offered a running commentary on Stacey’s activities and could understand much of her conversation with him. The most poignantly touching scene for this reader was Wesley lying on Stacey’s chest and giving her an owl hug with his outstretched wings.
WESLEY THE OWL is an obvious choice for backcountry readers and anyone who can imagine what it would be like to talk (and listen) to the animals.