Poems by Kerry Neville

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An Owl, an Offering

by Kerry Neville

From Canary Winter 2016-17

Kerry lives in the French Creek watershed forty miles south of Lake Erie, source of prodigious, lake-effect snow in the winter.

Yesterday, I watched a Great Horned Owl practice her flying from the end of a creance line, her once fractured wing now strong enough to carry her across the soccer field. A farmer found her over the summer with one end of a string knotted around her wing and the other end attached to a telephone wire. Who knew how long she’d been dangling upside down like a broken, abandoned kite? Carol, the rehab center’s director, explained that the fracture was likely from either the impact or the struggle. Weeks passed before she was certain the owl would survive as birds, like humans, experience shock after trauma (in animals called “capture myopathy”); however, in birds and other animals (rabbits and deer), this can be fatal, rapidly burning up all available glycogen stores. These animals can drop dead at the moment of trauma (e.g., caught in a “humane” cage or a leg caught in a trap) or it could take days and weeks for organ failure.

This owl survived and was magnificent! Ombré feathers moved from gray to brown to ruddy red to white, the way a desert rock face changes with the light. Feathered tufts, like flaming antennae, grew from each side of her head. Her face was a great disc confined between dark parentheses. And her eyes were big, yellow honey moons. She swiveled her head, a perfect radar dish, and fixed her gaze on me. Was she wondering if I was predator or prey?

At the rehab center, Blake, a volunteer, strapped jesses around the owl’s legs; the rugged leather anklets, more hipster than falconer, were fastened to the one hundred and fifty foot long paracord. Jess, another volunteer, cradled the owl, a strange, otherworldly infant, while Blake zigzagged the line on the ground to prevent it from spooling out too fast, and to control the owl’s flight speed. The owl was a little like a ventriloquist’s dummy: its body still, its head wheeling back and forth, eyes wide open, beak clacking in warning. In the sky, two crows circled us, cawing in protest over our invasion of their territory, but more over the owl which they had spied from their perch in a nearby pine tree. Great Horns make meals out of crows. “We’ll have to leave if they start dive bombing her,” Jess said.

When the crows finally scattered, Jess launched the owl: one hand on the bird’s back offering a steadying momentum, the other under its taloned feet, thrusting them forward. The bird beat its broad wings in rapid succession, gaining altitude, and then opened them into a four- foot extension. Each beautiful, tough feather worked with the others, flapping and gliding, flapping and gliding. The leading, serrated edge of an owl’s flight feathers, or flutings, muffles the rush of air over the wings, allowing the owl stealth flight. Carol, the director, had earlier explained how birds die from feather trauma: the long, vertical barb that runs down the center of a feather is a straw supplying blood to the smaller, horizontal barbs, barbules, and hooklets; if the feather breaks and the wound doesn’t clot quickly, the bird can bleed out. “It can take years to rehab a bird with trashed feathers,” she said. I never considered a feather’s workings beyond its general flight purpose, or maybe my curiosity ended with aesthetic admiration of the white and gray seagull feathers I’d twirl between my fingers at the beach, or the shimmering blue jay feathers I’d find in my backyard.

Beautiful and necessary. Delicate and tough.

The owl picked up speed; the line tensed and went taut. The bird tumbled to the ground, startled out of her intention, clearly the line of maple trees across the field. The crows swooped in again with their vociferous complaints. The owl waited, feathers puffed, clacking loudly, necessarily hamstrung by the line. In a few weeks, the owl will be released back to home ground in Erie, back to instinct and chance without the safety of the line or meals of pre-butchered rat. Before Blake launched her for a second run, I ruffled my fingers across her head, through the soft, bristle feathers. The owl turned her head and stared at me, blink! blink! and then turned away, eyes back on the blue sky. She didn’t want to know me at all. That was a reason for joy.

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