Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Owlets

The owlets hatched last week, three balls of white fuzz with beaks that seem too big for their tiny faces. Falling into the so-funny-looking-they’re-cute category, the owlets hatched in Indiana. I know of their arrival because I am somewhat obsessed with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s barred owl cam, which documents life in the owls’ nest box.

Mother owl feeds the babies in this screenshot from the cam.
I have a thing for barred owls – and foxes and bears and various other creatures – in part because we hear them so often and have on occasion seen them perched on a birch tree in our field. Their Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? call is like a voice from the wild, reaching into our front yard at dusk or through the bedroom window in the darkest part of night.

I’ve taken to watching the owl cam this spring because it somehow provides a bit of calm and focus during a time when lots of things are changed, and lots of other things seem perpetually uncertain. The owls – and the other natural routines of the season – are a reminder that beyond our human perspective, the world goes on as usual.

The bloodroot is blooming beneath the sprawling branches of the old apple tree behind the vegetable garden, as it has every spring I’ve lived in this house. The trout lily and trillium are starting to poke through the leaf litter in the woods. The chickadees we see flitting about year-round have been joined recently by juncos and goldfinches and the ever-calling phoebes. We have a huge flock of robins roosting at the edges of the fields day and night. And last week we spotted a bluebird perched in the highbush cranberry.

The wood frogs are back in the pond across the road, and the peepers have joined the evening chorus, their bell-like trills mingling with the nasally buzz of the woodcock. The hawk has returned, too, evidenced by its high-pitched call far above us. Woodpeckers of several varieties rat-a-tat-tat trees with increased frequency.

These are the things that both captivate and ground me when I am outside, walking with the dog, playing with the kids, or tending to chores in the yard. I love the familiarity of the repeating seasons – and the discovery of things I don’t yet know, or have forgotten.

It is harder when I am inside, distracted by scrolling through headlines or social media feeds, where so much of the news is grim and unsettling. It is easy to get sucked into that online world of words, to let melancholy and unease settle in. And that’s where the owls come in. The owl cam has become my distraction from the news, my place of re-centering. When I find myself too distracted, or simply stuck in some task, I check in with the owls.

Sounds weird, I know, but somehow, taking a virtual peek into the nest gets me to refocus on what I should be doing. Helping kids with school, reading work emails, or editing pieces about other fascinating aspects of our natural world.

At first, the owl cam showed just the female owl, incubating her three eggs, occasionally preening feathers or stretching wings, but mostly still. Indiana is, it seems, a bit ahead of Franconia in spring’s progress, so the background soundtrack included spring birdsong well before I heard those songs here. Now, mother owl is regularly jostled by three hungry chicks clamoring to be fed, and the nest box is often littered with food – in the form of dead rodents and the scattered feathers of smaller birds. (Nature is, after all, not always clean and pretty.)

The other day I heard the hoo-hoo-hoo-hoooo of a New Hampshire barred owl as I stood on our front porch. I’ve not yet managed to locate a tree hollow where the owls we hear are likely to nest. But somewhere in our woods, I hope, some fuzzy owlets will soon hatch into the world.
Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's April 23, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

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