By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
It was like the beginning of a favorite new song. It began quietly, and you could barely hear it. The soft cooing of a distant sound, a trilling that seemed reassuring and comforting. The world was safe. Everything was all right. It was home and warm and nature surrounded our little neighborhood. I listened to it in bed, shushing my girlfriend with our heads on the pillows, “Listen!” I whispered. There was silence in the dark. Then the gentle spring breeze carried the rising song. “It’s an owl! Can you hear it?” She did. “That’s a good sign. They trap mice and are good for the environment and the neighborhood. He probably lives at the end of the block down by the park.”
We drifted off to sleep to his quiet, lilting song. It made for an easy transition to dreams of rolling, wooded hills filled with friendly owls building nests, cooing their gentle songs while sitting on tree branches as wise, powerful sentinels maintaining the delicate balance of nature.
The Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) is a relatively common small owl species found throughout the Midwest and into Canada. It eats mice, rodents, and has adapted well to a suburban environment.
Owls are oddly social and friendly birds to humans. One very early morning a few years ago in Mission Viejo, California I saw an owl swoop down, glance off the windshield of an SUV driving in the early morning darkness, then drop into the street. I walked over to him, he appeared stunned in the middle of the street but otherwise, hopefully, OK. I spoke to him for a moment, asked him if he was OK. His feathery owl head pivoted to my voice. He looked confused, stunned. I scooped him up carefully in my arms, his soft feathers delicate to the feel.
I don’t know how to take care of an owl. I figured I would bring him home, get him a drink and make a little nest for him and take it from there. He was large, the size of a small cat, and very beautiful. He was also exceptionally well mannered, riding in my arms comfortably as if he knew I was trying to help.
In only a block of walking he had composed himself from the brush with calamity. He spread his wide wings carefully even as I held him, then gently lifted off with a downward flap and flew out of my arms. He did one circle over my head, as if to demonstrate he was fine and say thank you for the help, then he flew east up toward the mountains on the outskirts of town. Helping the owl felt like religion. It was like being visited, and blessed, from another world. A kinder, fairer world.
When I heard the owl outside our window here in Dearborn, Michigan I was elated. This is a great omen, a sign that our neighborhood is blessed and safe and well looked after. That things are in balance and that nature and mankind have arrived at a reasonable détente.
But then reality smashed home.
The quiet song disappeared. The owl was found in the street, his eyes barely open, standing on the ground. Confused, sick, in deep trouble.
A Good Samaritan named Jamie found the owl in the street a few days later around 10 PM. She said he was half dead. She picked him up, called the University of Michigan Emergency Veterinary Hospital. She was on the phone with them, getting instructions for how to save the owl as she held him in her arms. He opened his eyes once and she spoke to him as she held him. Then he closed his eyes.
They never opened again.
The owl in our neighborhood died because someone put out rat poison to try to control mice. But the problem with poison is it doesn’t know to only kill mice. It kills everything. The mouse eats the poison, the owl eats the mouse. The owl dies too. And we are left in a world without the owl’s song. It’s a world different than intended. A world that is ruled by our poison, literal and moral.
Using poison to control animals is wrong and immoral. We learned that in the 1950’s and ’60’s with DDT poisoning, and countless times since. It’s also ineffective and short-sighted. The owl was in charge of controlling rodent populations and did an effective job. He maintained a manageable balance of nature. When that is disrupted the results are always different than we imagine, and never better. But our human, insatiable need to control things drive these short-sighted and selfish decisions like using poison to kill a mouse.
You can buy things and you can build things. A fancy house, a yard that looks like a golf course. It proves you are rich and fancy. But you are driving a wedge into the world that pries things apart and ruins what was here before us and will hopefully return when we are gone. We are not better or smarter or stronger or more important. We’re temporary participants in a complex process. When we upset the process we spread suffering, not only to animals around us but to our own lives, often without even know it.
When I think of the most important events in my life, the most extraordinary, the most valuable and lasting they are not the day I bought a car or a house. I actually don’t remember much about those things. But I remember the owl in the street in California. I remember the song of the owl down the block. These things had value. They reminded me that I am part of something bigger and that, if I care for it, it will care for me.
But when the owl down the street went silent I suddenly felt very alone.