I called out to the juvenile Great Horned Owl born on the ranch this past spring. She returned my screech, and I was surprised to hear it coming from so far away. I hollered again. This time I realized she was somewhere down by my father-in-law’s place a half mile away. There is an old cement water tank on his property. For an instant I feared she flew into the tank to snatch a bullfrog and got stuck. Coyotes yipped and cackled from the east. It was after dark, and I was outside with the dogs. I gathered them up and went into the house forgetting about the owl. This was two nights ago. Yesterday, while hurrying to finish chores before a trip to Tucson, I mentioned to my husband that I didn’t hear the owl while feeding the hummingbirds. Errands in Tucson took longer than expected, and I returned home late last night too tired to walk the dogs or call out to the owl.
Ron left early this morning to help a friend. I had the house to myself and made a fresh cup of tea before sitting down at my computer to grade papers. The animals were fed. The dogs and I had been on a long walk, and they were sprawled out like rugs at my feet.
A subtle shift in the air poked at me. It was too quiet outside. The owl was gone. Her absence created a palpable void. I ran outside and the dogs followed as I screeched for her, hoping to hear something on the wind. It had been thirty- six hours since I last heard her. I wiped away tears knowing I was too late. I shouted at the dogs to keep up as I ran toward the tank. My anxiety kept them at bay.
The Great Horned Owl is a powerful spirit animal. In some Native American cultures, they are a sign of death; in others it is believed that they harbor the souls of the dead. A visit from an owl in a dream may signify transformation in our lives. They are symbols of wisdom and are keen hunters deeply committed to their mates. Aware of all she represented, I had ignored her screech, her cry for help. I had done a terrible thing.
I reached the tank, and before looking over the edge, I prayed for forgiveness.
The water was low, and her talons were sunk into a small patch of algae that grew on the cement. Her waterlogged wings drooped at her sides, but she was alive. “I’m so very sorry.” I cooed, not having a clue how to rescue her. “I’ll be right back.”
The dogs ran next to me as I rushed home. After securing them in the house, I went looking for anything I might need to save the owl. The above ground tank is fifteen feet in diameter and five and a half feet tall. Bullfrogs the size sewer rats live in a three-foot-deep rotting stew of plant and insect decay covered in two feet of algae water. I prayed I could rescue her without wading through the muck and grabbed a rake, shovel, and hoe. I dug a cat carrier out of the barn and found a long-sleeve shirt, my husband’s rain boots, and a pair of leather work gloves at the house. I tossed it all in the bed of my pick-up truck and stopped at the woodpile on my way out to drag a seven-foot tree limb to the truck.
I moved cautiously, but the owl appeared terrified as I worked to wedge first a rake and then a hoe under her to lift her to safety. She would have none on it and flapped around until I feared she would drown. I heaved the tree limb over the side of the tank creating a makeshift ladder she could use to walk up onto the cement rim. I stepped back and waited. When she didn’t climb out on her own, I peered over the side of the tank. “Sorry, girl. I need to leave again. I promise to get you out of there.”
There are no procedures to follow for this kind of thing. No set of instructions. No employee handbook. I cataloged everything we owned as I drove home. I would need to go into the tank after all and that meant finding a ladder. I made a mental note to make sure that I took my phone with me. I would be no good to anyone dying alongside her. I would need to secure her, so she didn’t flap out into the middle of the tank. Just the thought of those giant bullfrogs gave me pause. I could use a bucket, but once I covered her with it, how would I get her out? Years ago, I volunteered for a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organization. I learned on the job that an old sheet is a volunteer’s best friend. Whether I was rescuing an injured bird of prey, a den of motherless coyote pups, or a baby javelina separated from her squadron, throwing a sheet over an animal’s head signals lights out, and creates a calming effect for all involved.
I scoured the barn and the basement for equipment and materials and headed back to the tank where I stepped from the truck and was greeted with a familiar screech. While I was gone, the owl had figured out how to walk up the tree limb and was resting on an old wooden post, her tail feathers dripping dank water.
She had spent the better part of two days in that tank. Disturbing her while she rested would have been cruel. I went home and waited an hour before I drove back to where I had last seen her. She was gone, and I worried she was off somewhere in the thick shrubs, dying.
I drove home cursing my stupidity. I should have followed her calls the night she went missing. I parked my truck and was greeted by a cacophony of songbirds in the pine tree on the west side of the house. It was their silence that had alerted me to the owl’s disappearance. The songbirds were frantic because the predator was back in their tree. I walked over and looked up. The owl’s feathers had dried, allowing her to fly home. “Welcome back, sweet girl,” I said.
She screeched as though greeting me, and the world and my place in it felt right again.