I’ve been married now for over 21 years and last spring I fell in love. My marriage is safe, however; the objects of my devotion live in Indiana and I’ve never seen them in real life. One day into my Twitter feed came a tweet about a barred owl camera, I clicked on it, and that was the end for me. This year I was delighted to discover that the same owl parents were using the same nesting box. The three eggs have not yet hatched.
Last spring the nesting box was inhabited by a mother owl, her three owlets and the shadowy figure of the dad, who made occasional appearances with crayfish and worms in the dead of night. When I first met this family, two owlets had hatched and the third egg was still sitting there. When the mother owl left briefly to hunt, the tiny white owlets snuggled up to the sibling egg and slept. Then, on April 10, very early in the morning, the smallest owlet was born.
In those early days, the mother owl stayed with her young almost all the time, leaving only briefly to hunt. I left the owl cam open on the computer, with the volume up, so that I could hear if anything were happening. As I went about the house, I could occasionally hear the “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” hoot of the owl, in response to her mate. They would chat briefly, with the female puffing up her feathers every time she called, and then she would settle her wings carefully around her owlets and resume her rest.
Barred owls are mainly nocturnal, so much of her hunting took place at night. Tiny owlets need frequent feeding, so she and her mate would stock the larder overnight and then she would feed them about every 3 hours all day with the rabbit, or frog, or fish that lay in a corner of the nesting box. She snoozed much of the time, but occasionally would have her gorgeous huge dark brown eyes open. She changed position from time to time, allowing me to admire the lovely fluffy white feathers that are usually hidden under the stiff striped feathers of her tail.
It turns out it’s actually pretty loud inside a nesting box 30 feet up a tree in Indianapolis. The day shift is busy outside, with the jays calling, the woodpeckers hammering and the male cardinals singing enthusiastically to their modest brown mates. I already hated loud landscaping equipment, and when I heard the sound of a two-stroke engine as it is experienced in a nesting box, my rejection of such machines was confirmed. That this poor dedicated mother, trying to snatch a nap in between feeding sessions of her young, should be so disturbed!
I was much taken by the beauty of the birds: the striped softness of the mother, the white down and tiny winglets of the infant owls, and now their brown and white fluffiness. The facial disk so characteristic of many owls, in which the feathers are arranged circularly around the large eyes, were evident even when the owlets were tiny. It has been a pleasure to see the daily activity of animals so close up.
But it’s not just a question of beauty and biological observation for me. I realized as I watched this mother that I was experiencing profound fellow-feeling with her. I was remembering my experience with my babies as a physical experience, as a creature. After she fed her tiny owlets and preened them carefully, she settled her wings around them to provide warmth and shelter, and closed her eyes. (Click on the link for an adorable video). I remembered sitting in the nursing chair, nursing my infant, both our eyes closed and peace all around and between us. We were warm and dry and fed, and nestling together was all there was to do.
I saw the owlets, usually huddled together when the mother is off hunting, hear her approach. They stretched their wings, often almost toppling over, shot out their necks and generally got terribly excited. I was reminded of walking up the stairs to get the baby out of bed, after a nap, and hearing a sudden rustling in the bed clothes and shaking of the crib against the wall as the child wriggled in joy at my impending arrival.
I saw the frenetic motions of the owls as they eat, and the stillness of their bodies as their mother preens their tiny feathers, and I remember one day when my youngest was one or two. She was profoundly upset, her body shaking and hot, and I opened my arms to her. She came into them, pressed her trembling body against mine, and was suddenly quiet and still. I thought, “Only I can do this. Only I can be her mum.”
I saw how busy this mother owl was. When the owlets are about three weeks old, they are much more active in the nest. They eat much more, and she and her mate spend a lot of time hunting, leaving the owlets alone. As they have done from the beginning, they snuggle up to each other to keep warm. The smallest owlet is often jammed between the elder two. As they sleep, they sway on their feet trying to keep their balance. Often they lose the battle, flop over and then right themselves. This swaying motion reminds me of nothing more than graduate students trying to stay awake during an afternoon seminar. The mother is so careful with them, and takes such good care. This reminds me of the incredible amount of energy it took for me to care for my human babies. Sometimes it was hard to put their needs above my own. The mother owl spent a long time feeding her young one rainy day with the feathers on her own head wet and bedraggled. Once they were settled, she preened herself.
I admire this barred owl mother so much. She shows me that I am an animal mother too, and that my focus on the children to the virtual exclusion of all else when they were very young is natural. It makes me feel better about my extreme discomfort at leaving my babies for longer than a few hours when they were very small, and my reluctance now to have them away from me now for much longer than the length of a school day. When they come home, although they are all so much older now, they each want a hug and a cuddle and some quiet time. We all like to be near each other.
It makes me feel better about my initially astonishing lack of desire to pick up my intellectually-based ambitious busy life after the children were born. The physical reality of motherhood is more profound than I had ever dreamed. Thank you, barred owls.