28 October 2012

Friday Field Notes: Who's Watching Hoooo(m)?

Have you ever had the experience of coming face to face with an owl?

Incredible birds for a variety of reasons, including their elusive nature, adept hunting skills, and haunting calls, owls have long captured the human imagination. Stories about owls have been passed down for thousands of years in numerous cultures, and even today we assign them meaning (mystery, cunning, wisdom) and relate to them in profound ways.

What I have been most touched by, however, is the way in which owls seem to gaze back at us with the same intent with which we look upon them. The thrill of seeing a bear or moose or eagle is undeniable, but these animals often do little more than acknowledge our presence before dismissing us as a non-threat and moving on to whatever they were doing before we disturbed them. Owls, by comparison, appear to stare directly at us, appear to be going through a series of complex thoughts and judgements. I have sometimes felt as if the bird is actually peering directly into my soul. Sure, many animals display extreme senses of curiosity (especially American Martens), but owls are doing more than checking out what we're up to; they're breaking us down and sizing us up. Maybe I am anthropomorphizing a bit too much; but maybe owls are even more intelligent and complex than we give them credit for.

A Great Gray Owl sizing me up.

I am led to believe that owls watch and study us in ways most other animals do not, ways that we do not truly understand. This places us in unusual position, one in which many people would not be comfortable:  as humans, we are usually the ones placing other animals under the microscope, not vice versa. So the experience of coming face to face with an owl (especially a large one) can be fairly humbling and eye-opening.

A Snowy Owl checking me out from a somewhat unusual vantage point: a roof.

Standing eye-to-eye with an owl stirs up ancient and primal emotions, transporting us to times when we were a bit closer to the world around us. It forces us to re-evaluate our assumptions about nature. It poses much larger questions, none more relevant than: Who's watching whom?

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