For thirty-seven days a Great Horned Owl sat on her eggs in a nest twenty feet up in a pine tree outside our front door without doing much more than twitching her ears. During that time, Ron and I got haircuts, joined friends for a fish fry, and spent time with our granddaughter. We planted seeds for our garden, trimmed fruit trees, and Ron harvested three gallons of honey from our bee hives. I hosted the Cochise Creative Writing Celebration, edited the Mirage Literary and Arts Magazine, and presented a writing workshop for the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Writers & Photographers. I learned a little something about birding, attended my first bull sale, and read two novels. In short, our lives consisted of much more than twitching our ears.
The owl came to live with us back in October and perched for months in a pine tree on the west side of the house. At night she graced us with her hoot-hoot. In February, we noticed a male owl and in no time a love connection was made. Once she took to the nest, we included checking on her in the morning when we took the dogs for a walk and again in the evening. I could hardly contain myself when, on the thirty-seventh day, we found her sitting up in the nest. My best guess was the eggs had hatched. Four days later my suspicions were confirmed when a downy, white head with enormous eyes peeked out from the nest and wobbled in the wind.
From what Ron and I can tell, there are three owlets. I’ve been doing a great deal of reading and it seems even though the male and female mate for life, Great Horned Owls lack in parenting skills. Because they are opportunists rather than nest builders, they often make bad decisions when shopping for real estate; often times selecting a nest that is flimsy or too small. Luckily this couple commandeered a vacated raven’s nest. It’s a catawampus mess of sticks, but I’d trust it in a hurricane. Even so, I worry about the baby owls. If the parents are bad, the owlets are god-awful. Some will bat their wings until the nest falls apart, others try to fly the coop long before they’re ready, and sibling rivalry can send a brother or sister tumbling to the ground. I worry at least one of these little guys won’t make it long enough to fly out of here.
That’s the owls’ side of the story. Inside the house we have four cats and a ten pound Corgi-Chihuahua mix named Peaches. The voracious appetite of a parliament of owls leaves little to the imagination should my cats get out. I keep the dog on a leash for our walks with a vigilant eye to the sky. Several times a day I shout out, “Where’s Peaches!” or “Count the cats!” The anxiety wears on me as I make my way through the house checking doors and windows.
Now that I’m noticing the amazing birds migrating through the pine trees and orchard, I’m reminded of my house in Arizona where our cats spent the mornings outside while I gardened. To show their appreciation, they often brought me lizards and pretty, little dead birds. The karmic implications are not lost on me. This is the cycle of life, I tell myself when I can’t find one of the cats or Peaches darts out the front door unaware of the hunters perched above her head.
Today a Black-headed Grosbeak is holding our bird feeder hostage as the poor House Finches plead for seeds. I have spent most of my life unaware of how insanely active and cut-throat the natural world is. I’ve been too preoccupied to notice things like the owl-cat-songbird cycle-of-life. I’m too busy with meetings, appointments, and obligations to notice the grosbeak bully on the block. This morning an owlet spread its wings. The birds are twice the size they were when we first saw them a week ago. Moments like this give me pause. Life goes on whether we pay attention or not.
Cash Massey and his wife, Kanzas, own Three Mile Hill Ranch a few miles north of our place. Cash had invited us to their fifteenth annual Angus Bull sale. I’ve done a lot of work on ranches over the years, seen a lot of bulls, even castrated a few little guys who were better suited for slaughter than passing on their genes, but I’d never attended a bull sale and didn’t know what to expect.
It was a gorgeous day, which for this time of year, means the wind wasn’t blowing. The Massey’s barn sits on a knoll just east of their house. We parked among other pickup trucks, some with stock trailers ready to haul livestock home. Potential buyers walked amid the corrals next to the barn where the bulls were housed. The yearlings weighed between 950 and 1,050 pounds and appeared impressive against the desert landscape.
We joined neighbors in the barn for a delicious lunch Kanzas had prepared and awaited the sale. Gates and alleyways led from the corrals to the back of the barn where the doors opened to a large pen. To the left of the enclosure was a platform big enough to seat the auctioneer and Kanzas. Before the sale, Cash and Kanzas handed out brochures to buyers. Cash welcomed everyone and then said a prayer giving thanks for family, community, and the Lord’s bounty, including the bulls.
Since I first heard my fifth grade P.E. teacher, Mr. Omen, belt out square dancing calls in the grade school gym, I’ve been fascinated with auctioneers—fast-talking men who scare me a little bit. With the confidence of a ring master, Cash ushered his bulls in and out of the pen while the auctioneer had my full attention and buyers bid on the bulls. The mutual respect shared between Cash and his animals was evident. I wondered if he had a favorite.
This is a family affair. Cash is a fourth generation farmer and Kanzas is a fifth generation rancher. Their teenage daughter, Jade, helped with the paperwork and the money end of things while their son, Cap, ran the gates in the corrals along with a few neighbors. Good values and a strong work ethic are evident in the Massey children who are kind, confident kids. Grandparents were available to help out, and even the family’s corgi/Australian shepherd mix was on her best behavior.
When the sale was over, I introduced myself to Bryan Waldrop. As the livestock inspector for Hidalgo County, his job is to verify the purchase of each bull. After all, this is a business. It is also risky business. A family’s livelihood is at stake. I admire Cash and Kanzas for their commitment to a lifestyle that demands a great deal from families. Across the nation, rural communities lack in education funding, employment opportunities, and health care services. There are over 46 million people living outside metro areas making up 14 percent of our population and, unfortunately, the number is dwindling. Places like Animas are dependent on the work folks like Cash and Kanzas do. Unlike cities that rely on the sale of goods and services, we depend more on production from the land. A bull sale plays an important role in the economic well-being of our community.
Watching folks load the bulls they’d purchased into stock trailers, I was reminded how lucky I am to be free of florescent office lights and a work schedule that once dictated my life. It was Tuesday afternoon, and Ron and I were at a bull sale in Animas, New Mexico. It doesn’t get much better than that.
My dear friend and author Katie Towler recently visited the ranch from New Hampshire. Her part of the world was getting hammered by a late winter snowstorm. As a birder, she was grateful for the warm weather and bird songs. One morning after breakfast, we drove up into the Chiricahua Mountains about an hour west of here, looking for birds to add to Katie’s life list.
I didn’t know a sparrow from a Cactus Wren. I also didn’t know what to expect when we pulled into Bob Rodriquez’ driveway just down the hill from Portal, Arizona at the mouth of Cave Creek. Katie mentioned she’d found Bob’s bird sanctuary on ebird.org. Bob is one of a handful of folks who welcomes birders into his yard as a public service in exchange for a small donation for birdseed. His place offered parking and a narrow walking path that opened up into a clearing where feeders hung from trees and a rock fountain provided water. The only birds I recognized were the Gambel’s Quail in the sea of small, squawking feathered creatures that fluttered about in trees and on feeders. Someone had skewered oranges on tree branches. Katie explained that orioles like them. I was just along for the ride and had managed to forget my binoculars in the truck. We sat quietly for several minutes. The birds had a calming effect that drew me closer to the present until all my obligations, worries, and the list of chores waiting for me at home dissolved. We heard distinct chatter coming from the brush and turned slowly to follow the noise. To our delight, a Hooded Oriole perched on a branch above an orange. “That’s it,” Katie whispered.
It was a gorgeous day. There was a light breeze and the temperature was in the seventies under the trees. Katie slowly passed me her binoculars and pulled out her camera. To my surprise, the bird, clear as the blue sky behind it, came into focus. I caught my breath. “It’s beautiful,” I said.
I had never noticed the small birds that chortle and sing as the sun rises in the pine trees outside our bedroom window. Since Katie left, I carry a pair of binoculars with me when I work in the orchard, walk the dogs, or tend to the garden. I’ve started my life list using The Sibley Field Guide of Western North America and a small notebook. I like the physical feel of a book in my hands and the weight of a pen between my fingers. I like being outside with a purpose other than work. I like surprises. These intriguing birds force me to slow down and take stock of my environment and my place in it. I ponder the symbiotic relationship. The birds go about eating insects and spreading pollen while the ranch provides shelter, food, and water.
Last night, before sunset, I spotted a Vermillion Flycatcher rested on the garden fence. This morning a pair of Western Kingbirds called from an apricot tree. Each day I talk to the Great Horned Owl who has not left the nest in over a month while she incubates her eggs. Her partner is more elusive, but he visits at night and in the early morning bringing her food and conversation. Katie and I listened to the hoot-hoot of the owls one night while we lay awake in our respective beds. The sound settled deep inside me, lulling me to sleep.
Katie’s article in Literary Hub, “Why do Writers Love Birding so Much?” delves into the intellectual, joyful, and spiritual world of birding. The act of seeking out birds allows some writers an escape from the creative self that tends to needle at us. It is a must-read for anyone willing to step into their yard with a pair of binoculars.
Thank you, Katie, for opening the door to this new adventure. Gifts don’t always come in packages. Sometimes they are simply shared through friendship.
Portal–Bob Rodrigues yard (Dave Jasper’s old yard), Cochise, Arizona, US
Apr 2, 2017 1:30 PM – 2:15 PM
Gambel’s Quail 8
Broad-tailed Hummingbird 1
Curve-billed Thrasher 1
Black-throated Sparrow 2
White-crowned Sparrow 25
Canyon Towhee 1
Northern Cardinal 2
Hooded Oriole 1
House Finch 10
Pine Siskin 8
*Photos courtesy of Katie Towler