Column: Imposing owl was a subject of more fear than admiration

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 1, 2001

Read with interest Allen Batt’s Sunday column, a masterful discussion of the great horned owl.

Thursday, February 01, 2001

Read with interest Allen Batt’s Sunday column, a masterful discussion of the great horned owl. My experience with owls in general has left me somewhat embittered, but in no way critical of those who seek their company. In fact some of my best friends are, like Al Batt, members of the Audubon Society.

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My father was a nature enthusiast, though in other ways fairly normal. He did his best to convey to me his love of nature. Not altogether in vain, I suppose, since I was the only member of our Campfire group who could pick up garter and bull snakes without flinching.

I was employed by The Tribune in September, 1949. I would hesitate to take my oath on it, but I think is was just a few weeks earlier when a Clarks Grove minister shot and killed a snowy owl. It was an act that would have raised a few eyebrows even if he had kept it to himself. But apparently like many gun-slingers he was proud of being a good shot. So he sent for a Tribune photographer to take a photo of him and his prey and I think the photo appeared on the front page.

As I recall we were still getting letters of protest when I began my life at The Tribune. The letters continued on and on. Though I believe any talk of lynching was highly exaggerated.

I can’t remember how many years there were between the appearance of the photo and the day Jim McCluskey, reporter, was asked to go out to a farm and take a picture of a snowy owl. It was noon, a perfectly awful spring day, with thin ice spread over the fields, and deep holes full of slush just beneath the ice.

McCluskey had offered me a ride home so I went with him to take the picture. The man who had telephoned us was waiting and every time McCluskey, who had waded through cold and miserable slush, to find a good vantage point, raised his camera, the man protested.

So McCluskey, never noted for his patience, would trudge on. Finally when it seemed he was in the right location, he once more raised the camera and the owl flew.

When McCluskey came back to the car, I had the sense not to utter. He was livid and positively gritting his teeth. When he finally spoke it was to ask me the name of the minister who shot the snowy owl.

&uot;You want to talk to him?&uot; I asked.

&uot;Talk to him!&uot; McCluskey snarled. &uot;I want to join his church!&uot;

The horned owl came into my life when I was 10 or 11 years old. Although we lived in town we had in our back yard what was, I suppose, once a stable. The bottom /part was used for storage; the rather large loft was a gift to my friends and me. It was furnished with discarded furniture, had a non-functional telephone and we played detective there.

The top part of the door that marked the entrance was arched and divided into sections. Sitting in one of these sections one Sunday afternoon was the owl. Al said the horned owl weighed about three or four pounds. To my terrified eyes it looked like a monster weighing closer to 50 pounds.

I rushed to the house for help, but my father instead of driving the creature away was fascinated by it. He went in the house and procured several wieners to feed it. While he was gone the owl and I gazed at each other with nothing like rapport and it hissed at me.

I vigorously refused the opportunity to feed it a wiener and was glad I did. If you’re tempted to feed an owl by hand think twice. It accepted the wiener from my father, but took a rather sharp nip out of his finger in the process. More patient with the owl than he usually was with his daughter, my father blamed himself for the nip. He found a stout stick with which to pierce the wieners and offered the rest of them to the owl on the stick.

All the time the owl was being fed I was being called upon to admire him. Called to my attention were his double set of eyelids, one set of which came from the side, the other which moved down like our eyelids; I was instructed to feel the softness of his feathers. Like velvet they were, I expected to lose two or three fingers finding that out.

Once he seemed full of wieners I thought it was high time he took his departure. My father was indignant.

&uot;How can you be so ungrateful? How many of your little friends have a chance like this to study a horned owl close range? You don’t seem to realize how lucky you are!&uot;

My father was wrong. My little friends had more than adequate opportunity to study the owl at close range. He never came up to the loft where we played, but our approach and ascent were made exciting by his swooping, talons outspread, wings overshadowing us, and much hissing to cheer us on our way.

There was no point, I knew, in complaining to my father. He was looking forward to the day when the owl and I would fraternize and become fast friends. In desperation 1 took the problem to my mother. I told her how he hissed and chased us and how he curved his talons at us.

Her reaction?

&uot;Honey,&uot; she said, &uot;You and your friends must simply not tease that poor little bird.&uot;