Archive for September 12th, 2007

Fledging

amywink September 12th, 2007

In the dawn, a yet-to-be-visible bird sings clear notes of ascending and descending sixths through the shadowed oaks of my neighboring woodland. He sings again in late evening, setting the sun with his evensong, invisibly present in the waning light. I do not know if he greets the day or night with his performance, whether he hopes for brightness or twilight’s darkening. But I always listen, pausing to hear those clean notes score the edges of the day.

He is not the only performer in my urban neighborhood: many others also claim this territory. Carolina wrens announce their authority, and the cardinal declares his province. A host of chickadees and their jaunty allies, the tufted titmice, sweep through in a chattering cloud
morning, afternoon, and evening. I have even seen, but only recognized afterward, an American kestrel fire through the trees in swift pursuit of a panicked and fleeing dove. My sluggish brain recognized his racing form too late for a second look, and I was left with an amazed yet uncertain memory of that arrow’s flight.

These are the public figures of my woodland yard, a diverse and vibrant habitat that I tend carefully: planting with an eye to hummingbirds and filling feeders with everyone’s favorite, sunflowers seeds, and peanuts especially for the jays. I welcome the lively distraction from my work, always happy to stare out the windows instead of at the computer screen, to watch who has come to visit. My favorite, though, is the quiet resident who, unlike the daylight neighbors, remains a private figure, appearing in the closing dusk to haunt the yard. The flight of other birds does not seem loud, until I watch the owls wing soundlessly into the trees.

The Eastern screech owls have resided here as long as I can remember, growing a new generation each year for the last thirty-two that I have called this place my home. I begin to see them in the late spring, as dusk comes later and I can sit in the yard as the evening cools. One or two appear together, dark shapes on the grass, or gliding silently between the trees to reach their vantage point. I have chanced upon their hunting, opening a door to find one perched near the patio, her predatory eyes turning to stare at my disruption. I’ve heard their claws late at night, catching a moth against the walls. As much as I enjoy the brighter birds, I feel a kinship with these owls, an affinity of spirit. I, too, like to work alone.

This spring, the owls chose my yard for the fledging, making an awkward and dangerous public appearance. My giant schnauzer found the errant youngster, grounded near a pecan tree. Hissing, the owlet held her at bay quite effectively, his wings spread wide to compensate for his small size. Part fluff part feathers, he must have seemed more dangerous than tasty, because she came away quickly when I called. Luckily, the murderous dachshunds missed him entirely. By the time I put the dogs away, the grounded owl had righted himself and begun a walk across the yard, a surprisingly efficient traveler by foot. His parents were in the trees, watching him carefully, watching me cautiously. In less than an hour, he’d made the ten-foot journey to the base of another tree, and climbed five feet to the first branch of significance. Wearied by his recent adventure, he rested in the branches and his parents came to sit near him, one watchful, one resting with the independent fledging, who was safe again in the trees, confident in his own success.

His second try was less graceful. Later, I discovered him in the hollies under the same pecan from which he’d walked away earlier. This time, he flopped and dangled from his toes, one foot trapped in the cracks of the bark, the other free but unable to clutch anything but air. His little body heaved as he panted, and I wondered what exactly to do. Do I interfere, or let Nature take its course? The hollies deterred me, as well as other predators, so I waited to see what the little bird could do alone. Half an hour later, he still dangled there. Because I knew something of being stuck, I decided against objectivity. Perhaps Nature had put me here to interfere, to make good use of my opposable thumbs.

Moving a long branch under his chest, I nudged him up and perpendicular to the tree. He scrambled, grabbed, and flipped himself from the tree, hissing and glaring from his flattened position in the bushes. His energy was back, and fierce. All he’d needed was a little leverage, a little boost to make it on his own. I backed away, leaving him to figure out the rest, since after all, I knew nothing about flying. His parents arrived for coaching, so I knew we’d been watched. By early evening, he’d clearly learned enough and had vanished with his parents into the dusk.

I saw the fledgling later that week, behind our yard, grounded at the foot of a tree. I lobbed a branch to scatter the grackles that had gathered to heckle the young predator. That was the last I saw of him in the daylight hours. He’s finally learned to fly and make his way safely in the dark. I hear him in the trees at night, chuckling softly with his parents. Now, he coasts silently from perch to perch, mastering his hunt, the next requirement for independent living. I know soon, he’ll melt into the darkening trees, a silhouette in the limbs among the parliament of owls who haunt the dusk.