About three weeks ago on a rainy night, I had been on the computer too long, working on a deadline, so I thought I’d take a quick break and go to the gym. I kept the workout brief, finished about nine o-clock, then hopped back into the car to head home for a hot bath and then more work.
I whizzed along the dark, two-lane country highway that can seem so empty this time of night, came to the last major intersection where a large Indian casino flashes on and off all night like a hallucination, turned onto the road that leads into the town of Suquamish: a gas station, a good pizza joint and the requisite ambiguous tavern next to the pier that reaches out into Puget Sound. It’s a small basically reservation community, approached and exited by long stretches of dark, tree-lined highway. Suddenly, in the haze of headlights whipping towards me on the other side of the dark road I saw what could only be one of a couple of things–a white plastic grocery bag, caught up and spinning in the eddy behind the zooming truck, or it was an owl, hit and flailing in the road. As I passed it I glanced in my rearview mirror. I had to stop.
I pulled over on the side of the highway and began fumbling in my bag for the small flashlight I carry but thought better of it–if whatever it was was still alive I needed to get it out of the road before another car came along and hit it again. I popped the hatch on the back of my car, where I keep a sheet and a large towel for this sort of situation, something I learned to do after I started volunteering at the wildlife shelter. I glanced nervously at oncoming headlights as I got the sheet out of the back, almost wincing at the anticipated impact–the car seemed to slow down as I hoped it would; thought I saw it angle around the mess on the road, rather than over it.
I was still in my gym clothes–boxer shorts and running shoes, fleece jacket over a tee shirt, I felt ridiculously exposed. I checked for oncoming traffic then crossed into the middle of the highway where there was a large mess of feathers–a barred owl–splayed across the centerline. I threw the sheet over it and quickly pulled together in an approximate owl-sized shape, to keep it in the right form, even if its wings were broken. I held it against my chest and ran back to the side of the road. There was no movement.
Striding back to my car, one of those huge, aircraft-carrier pick-up trucks pulled along side of me, all glowing and ticking in the rain: “Hey!” a young guy called from the window–“Did you just get something out of the road?”
“It’s an owl,” I called back.
“It hit my truck, man–”
I don’t remember what I said but I was civil, and he pulled away and I continued to my car with the bundle pressed up against me. I laid it gently on the passenger’s seat on what I believed to be its back, patted down its shape to see if it was holding together, then I settled behind the wheel, put the key into the ignition, exhaled.
I leaned over again and carefully opened the sheet partway–the bird’s dark eyes rolled up in its head like a baby doll’s, but otherwise there was no movement. I put my hand on its breastbone but couldn’t detect a heartbeat. Still, no blood that I could see: at least it hadn’t been split open on the impact.
I rewrapped it somewhat loosely, glanced at traffic in the rearview mirror and started the car, pulled back onto the road and drove the last quarter of a mile to the glow of the gas station, rolling through it to the darker empty parking lot on the other side, and stopped again. It was 9:30–still decent time to call anyone, I thought, so I phoned my supervisor from the wildlife shelter, who lives forty five minutes away.
She picked up immediately, sounded surprised and amused to be hearing from me, probably hoping I wasn’t calling in for my shift the next morning.
“Sorry to bother you at home, but I’ve got a barred owl,” I said in a rush. “It’s been hit on the road. In Suquamish. I can’t tell if it’s alive or not.”
She began immediately asking questions and we started discussing what I could do with it: could I take it to the shelter? I knew how to open the clinic. No, she’d put the alarm on when she left that evening. What about the emergency vet in Poulsbo, a few miles down the highway? No, she said, if it was alive they’d just put it in a box and wait to give it to the shelter in the morning, and she didn’t want it to be in pain. She’d come and get it.
“That’s a long way,” I said. “I don’t know if it’s still alive. I can’t feel a heartbeat. There’s that crate outside the shelter–I can drive it over and put it in there.”
“Yeah, but if it is alive I don’t want it spending the night in pain,” she said. “I’ll drive in and get it medicated–”
“You could talk me through giving the meds.”
“No I can’t,” she said. “Controlled substance.”
I looked down at the bundle. The sheet might have appeared to be making very faint movement.
“Wait–I think I’m seeing respiration. Listen, I really do not want this thing to come to in my car. I’m going drive it over to the shelter and put it in that crate.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “Go on over and I’ll meet you there in about forty minutes.”
I started the car, and with my right hand on the bundle, slowly wheeled out of the parking lot. I was coming back into focus myself, and suddenly aware of the possibility of a live owl in my car. Frantic wingspan. Talons. My car is a straight stick–continuing to keep my right hand on the bundle, I steered with my left hand, then let go of the wheel and reached through with my left hand to shift into second gear, grabbed the wheel again and got back out on the road–reached through and shifted up into third. The shelter was about two, three miles off; and by now I was certain, I was in fact seeing the sheeted bundle rising and falling. Breathing.
By the time I made it to the stoplight at the casino, now the bird began to make noise–a series of staccato, rasping chirps. “Don’t do it,” I told it as I downshifted with my left hand, then grabbed the wheel and banked through the intersection. “Do not come to before we get there.”
I turned down the narrow road that leads to the shelter, high woods on either side, with long driveways branching back into the trees. There could be people walking dogs in the dark, or even deer and other things crossing the road–I didn’t need another collision–still, I pushed it as fast as I dared, tight in my chest hoping I could get the owl into the crate before it came back to full consciousness. Tension pumping, I took the last curve a little too fast, hit the last straight stretch of road, angled into the gravel driveway of the shelter and coasted up to the clinic. My headlights flashed on the crate, sitting right next to the back door. I turned off the car, thought again and turned the headlights back on. I reached over and picked up the bundle, one hand on each side so the wings couldn’t come away from the body, and raced over to the crate; pressed the bundle against my chest again and opened the crate with one hand, then popped the bird in, sheet and all, closed the wire grate and released the spring closure.
I let out a deep, long breath.
Walking back to the car I could feel the cold air through my damp gym clothes. Lynne was probably still half an hour away. I had the time now to do a quick exam, check the bird’s injuries for more information when she got here. I fumbled through my bag and found the flashlight, turned the headlights off again. Twisting on the flashlight and narrowing its beam I went up to the crate and opened it, reaching in to the sheet, shining the light on the owl.
The owl rose up suddenly, like Uma Thurman hit by adrenaline in Pulp Fiction, eyes open, talons coming at my bare hands just before I got the door slammed shut again.
I stepped back away, back toward my car into the rain, and spontaneously burst out laughing.
Once Lynne got there and examined the owl, incredibly, the bird was unbroken. It turned out to be a first year, very large and well-fed, probably female, obviously good at hunting. Except for that last ill-fated swoop in front of a fast moving truck.
She got pain meds and something for the swelling, and on my regular shift the next morning I was glad to hear the owl clacking in irritation when I opened the door on her cage. It was a couple of days before she ate, which happens sometimes, but pretty soon her recovery moved along well and she was shifted out into the larger mews.
Yesterday, again on my regular weekly shift, as we were finishing up, Mike, the director, stood looking at the white board that lists the patients. We had a total of five barred owls now, all having been successfully prey-tested, meaning each had proven it was well enough to hunt again by capturing and eating live mice left in the enclosure.
“Wait a minute,” said Mike, pointing to the board–“that’s the owl you brought in, isn’t it? She’s ready to go.” He turned and looked at me. “Do you want to release her tonight?”
Owl releases are done after dusk; it’s better visibility for the owls, and it cuts down on the potential for harassment from local flocks of crows.
I finished what I was doing while Mike and another volunteer went to catch her, put her into the same crate I’d left her in that night, covered with a large towel. I picked up the crate and felt movement inside, rustling, irritated.
I met a friend for coffee, to wait for the light to finish going down, which it did quickly. This is the solstice, a good day for owls. We get into my car, with the bird crated and covered in the back, thumping the sides irritably, and drive to where I found her, though I turn onto a slightly less busy side-road, a few tenths of a mile further back into the woods.
As if the bird knows where she is, the agitation in the crate increases. I lift out the crate, still covered, and set it on the ground. The scratching and thumping from inside gets more frantic.
I check the area–the light is going fast, blue gray between the dark outlines of trees, no traffic–all signs look good, so I reach down and throw back the towel. The bird lunges forward and I try to keep my fingers clear of the grate as I fumble with the mechanism to open the door.
The owl bolts out; she pauses at the edge, then flutters her wings and makes a short trajectory, landing in the middle of the road–where she sits for the moment, looking over her shoulder back at me.
“What are you doing?” I shout. “Don’t do that! Get off the road!” We start running toward her, and the bird picks up again into a low, long flight, curving up and away, into the trees.
“Do you see her?”
“There–back there–see that branch that looks like a V? She’s that dark lump in the middle….”
It is rapidly getting darker. We stand there a little while longer until the owl shape is no longer visible, telling ourselves we can still see her; then we turn and head back to the car.
Suddenly I am afraid for her. It’s a cold night; headlights from cars whizz by on the nearby roads, one of them the road where she was hit. My owl is out there alone–a first-year, and she’s been hit once already. I want to protect her.
–and then I have to ask myself, from what?
Even if Laura and I could run out into the trees and try to wave her back down, get her back into the crate–to take her where? Back to the flight cage at the shelter? I think of the owls in the outside mews, up on the high perches, staring out.
I drop Laura back at her car, then go a bit out of my way before heading home.
The sky is dry tonight, which this time of year is saying something. I see a good chunk of half-moon, glowing up through a film of clouds off to the south; I imagine the owl sitting back there in the trees, taking readings. I wonder when she’ll get her bearings, recognize the familiar territory.
It is now so dark there’s almost no way to see anything as I roll past the release area. The road itself is clear and empty, though dampness and woodsmoke have mixed and drift across in milky bands, my headlights sweeping through.
I feel it again, the huge openness with the young owl out there in the night, and I feel empty. I feel small myself, and inept, just letting her go.
But what else is there? We could try, as humans, to lock it all up and manage it–or we can let it do what it’s meant to do.
The owl is out there, and I feel empty–but this is why we do it. This is a wild bird; this is what she’s alive for.