Our Winner for the theme of Animal Perspectives is Madeline Bennett – Congratulations!
The Great Horned Owl – By Madeline Bennett
It was the time of day when the rectangular lights of humans had just begun to outshine the sunlight’s remaining yellow when I saw him. He was sitting in a tall pose below me as I flew, my wings beating gently on top of the sky’s fading currents of warmth. The male owl perched at the highest point on a human structure and watched over the fields and patches of dirt. Chickens, horses, and humans had the run of this land when the sun shone. Now it was the time of owls, and I admired this male’s serene hunting posture.
I landed in a lofty pine tree near the human structure and waited for the male owl to hoot at me. I turned my head to get a view of the life among the treetops while listening to the activity on the ground. Mice scuttled among browned stalks of grass below, and I could faintly hear their frantic heartbeats pounding against brittle ribs. Nearer to my ear holes, insects clicked, buzzed, and clambered over each other in a tempting symphony. An even more satisfying meal was approaching from the distance. Focusing on a high-pitched sound through the clamor of other creatures, I heard baby opossums mewling while they clung to their mother’s back. Those pups, along with the mother if I could get her, would feed me for days. The male owl had picked a rich territory in which to hunt.
I stayed with my talons locked onto the pine tree branch as the sun disappeared behind the tree-lined hills. Surely the male owl had been waiting for night to display his plumage to me, so that I would be able to see his wingspan and the brilliant patch of white feathers on his chest more fully. Even sitting, he impressed me. He had gray wings with feathers like the smoothest stones, long black ear tufts held high, and exacting yellow eyes. I sat, eagerly anticipating him starting our life together by flying to me. The mother opossum padded her hand-paws over to tree branches beyond my hearing. My decision to forgo this meal displayed my commitment to the beautiful owl.
The sun began to descend earlier each day. Evenings of long, drawn-out hours dripping with gold turned into practical affairs wherein everything was tucked away for the night. The humans piled orange and yellow fallen leaves into tall mounds. I sometimes found mice and snakes in these mounds, and they kept my belly full. The rabbit and opossum babies were growing larger and behaving more like their adult counterparts—showing more fear of me when I snatched at them.
I wanted a little nest of my own. There was ample prey around, and I was ready to nurture eggs. The male owl who perched on the human structure was the only partner I desired, and I scoured the woods for an appropriate nest. When I found one, a small, sturdy tangle of sticks made by a hawk, I returned to the male owl.
I landed on the human structure beside him, my talons scrabbling over the material before finding a grip. The male did not swivel his head toward me. I stared in the direction he faced, so that I could understand what fixated him. In the fractal, barren trees silhouetted on the horizon, there was a cloud of crows coming to roost. They settled one by one on the trees’ branches like bloated leaves, taking their places in slipshod nests.
I softly hooted to the silent male owl, knowing that beneath his placid exterior he longed to have a nest of our own. I knew he would defend it valiantly from interlopers, and I needed to make the nest worthy of him. I flew away from the human structure in the middle of the night, sure that I heard the beautiful owl’s head turn to watch me.
When total darkness came like the flap of a wing, each night was full of opportunity. Mice and rabbits foraged for food, and I could easily see them against the white layer that coated the forest and the humans’ territory. I dove and grabbed prey with my talons, my feathers keeping me warm when I grazed the snow. I brought my kills back to my nest, where ice preserved them so that they would be ready for the chicks I did not yet have.
I flew to the male owl every night and invited him to follow me back to my nest, cooing to him and flying in arcs across his vision. He was supposed to be doing such mating displays for me to watch, but I did not mind. From the way he steadfastly guarded his territory, I knew he would be the ideal mate for the rest of my life.
The winter grew colder than the three winters I had seen. Worried for the male owl, I brought him mice and placed their bodies near his shiny black talons. He did not eat the food in front of me or even twitch his ear tufts. In the height of winter, snow settled in a thick layer on his head and wings.
I once huddled close to the male owl. I wanted to feel his warmth, and maybe we could be covered in the same snow eventually. White flakes fell in jagged trajectories. Some specks of pure coldness landed on my face and pierced through the thin feathers there to my delicate skin. I pressed into the male owl and felt no heat, only rigidity. He had taut muscles, ready to pounce. I would not see the beautiful owl dive for prey that night, because I decided to fly back to my eggless nest once the snow began to melt on top of my head, making me bedraggled and ungainly.
The sun warmed soft patches of soil at the bases of trees. This earth would be perfect for fledglings to land on during attempts at flying. I left my nest to visit the male owl. The snow had melted off his head and he looked formidable once again. My nest had deteriorated, crumbling apart from the blood and bits of fetid, thawing carrion soaking it. I did not want to show it to the male owl anymore, and I knew that next autumn I could find a new, accommodating nest with him.
I was perched on the human structure with the male owl one evening when another male came flying by. He was young and brash, and dove in our direction when he noticed us. I issued a loud hoot and expected the resolute owl next to me to do the same. The interloper hovered in front of the perched male and opened his scratched beak for a sonorous challenge. Receiving no response, the intruder locked his yellow eyes onto mine and began a mating display, flapping his broad wings covered in striped, gray-brown feathers and flexing his powerful talons. I was intrigued, but I hooted at him with a low tone, took flight, and showed him my own strong talons. The newcomer gave up on his display and flapped away into the night, leaving me with a beautiful owl that finally knew how much I wanted to be with him.
It was again the time when humans were awake late and moved with the carefree stumbles of a creature who has eaten more than its fill. I had been roosting during these days in a tree near the human structure on which the male owl sat. I was not preparing a new nest, and I was nearer to the humans’ territory than I preferred, though seeing him made it all worthwhile.
The days were hot, sometimes so hot that they woke me and I would have to ruffle my feathers or fly around before returning to sleep. On one such flight, I soared far away and then landed with relief on my familiar branch in the shade. The pine bough rustled, and I enjoyed a breeze stirring my ear tufts. Before I closed my eyes, I turned my head to face the male owl, as was my habit. He looked different than usual, and even in this distance I could see his distortion in crisp detail. He appeared to twitch and bend, and grey droplets formed out of his gorgeous plumage. His ear tufts were the first parts of him to drip away. Soon after, the yellow in his beak and eyes slid down his chest in bright, narrow stripes.
I hooted for the male owl to come join me in the shade. He did not move, holding his position while the sun directly above him burned a hole in the top of his head, melting him away in an uneven ring from that point downward. Inside, he was hollow and made of solid grey smoother than the smoothest stones, and he was beautiful.