Owl

Following on from the reign of death, dead rabbits continued to show up after I left for another teaching round. Each morning Quan would find another one – throat gaping, neck eaten. The poor woman was sleepless each night waiting for some noise to tell her it was happening, and afraid to go feed them in the morning for fear of whom she’d find. The first Trapper Joe was convinced that it was a weasel, showing Quan weasel hair caught on the edge of the fence. He spread the kitchen table with dangerous looking killer traps, and showed Quan how to set them, using one of the dead rabbits as bait – another instance where we have had to cut up one friend to save another. What kinds of lessons are these?

The traps were set outside the rabbitat, with one Have-a-Heart inside, and some leg-hole traps on the top of the fence in likely places. Nothing got in the traps, but another rabbit – Quill, poor thing – was decapitated in the morning. The first trapper came and took his traps away, partially because no predator was being caught, and partially because he was afraid of being fined, since this story was all around our little town and he didn’t have a license. The second trapper – also named Joe – was an old geezer who put out large Have-a-Heart traps with stinky codfish and salmon heads as bait, but these traps did nothing either.

The next morning, Louise didn’t come out to eat, and Quan saw her legs sticking out from under the hutch. She reached into the closed area under the hutch to draw Louise out, only to discover that she was in the clutches of a barred owl, who had dragged her under the hutch to eat her. The owl hissed at Quan, keeping her claws on the rabbit – “This is mine!” Quan had a moment – the owl was only couple of feet from her face – but fascination trumped fear. The owl was on top of the rabbit, with a pile of what Quan took to be feathers – and thinking the owl must be hurt, and she called everyone – vets, Avian Haven, and animal control to try to get some advice. The best advice was to throw a towel over her and bring her in. Dubious that this plan sounded better in theory than it would work out in practice, she sought help and went back out.

With George on the camera, and our young friend Peter in his long rubber oystering gloves holding the towel, Quan slowly dragged out the rabbit. But the owl wasn’t going to let go of her meal. Nor was she hurt – the ‘feathers’ turned out to be a pile of rabbit fur she had pecked off – and as soon as the owl cleared the hutch into the open, she abandoned her catch and took off over their heads before any towel could be thrown – silently, totally silently. The owl hung around on a branch for about ten minutes, to see if he was going to get dinner back, and then flew off without a sound.

Awed, Quan took Louise and left her on the top of the shed as an offering, but the owl never came back. She then put him out on a stump near the pond, but a coyote – judging by the tracks next day – took her away. What was left of the previous rabbits, at least the ones not cut up for bait, we had taken out of the rabbitat and left for the fox that is struggling for his living under the barn up on the hill.

The next morning one of Quan’s dutchies was dead – same thing, throat opened, head partially eaten. Still unsure whether the owl was the cause of the deaths or just picking up after the weasel, Quan gathered everyone she could and started putting the bunnies in a makeshift protective fence. The bunnies hated this and were tearing around, injuring themselves and fighting horribly. When a bunch of them poured (gratefully) though a hole in the fence back into the main unprotected body of the rabbitat, Quan gave up and broke down, saying, “OK, abort this project. I give up.” Everyone left – it was bitter cold – and Quan took the little dutchie back to where it was killed, and left it as an offering to the owl.

Quan’s project with the rabbits has always struck me as a little metaphor for man’s dominion over the beasts. On the one hand, she has striven for a ‘natural’ habitat for the rabbits where they can be free and have running room and make their own relationships etc. On the other hand, it ain’t natural for domestic rabbits to be outside in such concentrated numbers. We have been lucky up until now, but this year we have had more disease of unknown derivation, and now predation, which is about as natural as it gets. But of course Quan loves each rabbit like a pet, so finding one with its throat torn out each morning was a little too much naturalness, and she felt as if she was just serving up dinner, putting her little charges in harm’s way. It’s a recipe for craziness, and in my phone calls with Quan these nights, I reckoned she was darn near ready for the men in the white van.

On the third hand, we both felt that feeding an owl was somehow different from having these rabbits taken by a sneaky weasel. The owls have been particularly hungry and deprived this year because of the early snows and declining vole population up in Canada. When I am skiing in the woods, I see fewer tracks this year – of everything – then any other year we have been here. So the owl is coming to where the food is.

And here’s the part that makes this worth an entry to this blog: the offering was accepted. Each night the owl comes down and eats a bit of the frozen dutchie. No more rabbits have been taken. It’s just a small owl, and couldn’t lift the rabbits to take them with him. We, thinking the weasel had just randomly killed and drunk the blood, took each rabbit out of the rabbitat to give them to the fox, who is also hungry in this bleak winter landscape.

The owl left the rabbit each time because they were too heavy for the small owl to fly away with. We were taking the rabbits out of the rabbitat for obvious reasons. So the owl killed each night. But once she left the rabbit there, the owl – not a wanton killer like the weasels or fishers – returned only for what he needed – a bit of the rabbit each day was enough. So Quan has learned from this of the measure of nature – “I should have just left each rabbit in place, so the owl could feed, and I wouldn’t have been losing a rabbit each night.’

Which brings us to this morning:

Once again, Quan saw the legs sticking out from under a hutch, and sure enough, there was poor little Minouche, the next to die under the talons of the owl. I bent down and looked in – the owl had small but needle-sharp talons, and the strangest face, like the dwarf in ‘Don’t Look Now”, orange-eyed, yellow-beaked, the feathers laid away from his features to make a very clean Italian ‘commedia del arte’ face, wise and witchy and full of arcane knowledge – you can see how they got their rep.

We went and got a cat carrier, and put the open door over the space where the owl was, and slowly started sliding the hutch away from him. He flew / walked right into the cage, hissing and growling, but a quick snap of the door and he was trapped. I put him in the trunk of the car, along with the cold and very dead Minouche. They said 20 miles, so I drove him up the river to Head Tide. Along the way, I stopped for coffee and our friend who works at the bookstore said he would love an owl at his barn, which is overrun with pigeons (‘rats with wings’, say the New Yorkers).

owl-1.jpg

At the barn, I took him out of the car and over to the corner of the barn. I took out the rabbit and placed it in front of the cage. I told him we wished him no harm, that he could have Minouche, and we were sorry to displace him, but having the rabbits for dinner wasn’t part of the program. He was welcome to the pigeons, I said, and I hoped he would find this a good home. With gloves on, I opened the door and he lost no time in stepping out and into flight – so silent, so assured. His body was maybe a foot long, his wingspan near two feet. He flew to nearby apple tree, and stood regarding me. As I turned to pick up the cage, he flew off to a copse of trees at the edge of the field. May he find peace and another lunch – and I am glad we did not need to hurt him in any other way.

The owl flies into his new home ...

So now we see whether this was it – the single owl, not a weasel, caused all this havoc. Whatever the outcome, Quan is determined to downsize – too many rabbits to save in this world, too much angst.

As Mary Oliver (The Journey) says:

… there was a new voice
which you slowly recognized as your own,
that kept you company as you strode
deeper and deeper into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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