All my life, I’ve enjoyed birds and wished I could fly. Growing up in Iowa, I learned my basic birds: robins, sparrows, barn swallows, red-headed woodpeckers, and the state bird, the goldfinch.
One of my earliest memories involves a bird of prey, an owl. When I was a kid, my grandparents’ farm was one of my favorite places on earth. I loved my family, of course, my grandparents, great-grandmother, great-uncles and great-aunts, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, third cousins and all along the family tree.
I especially loved the farm animals: the horses, the Black Angus cattle, the dogs, even the tadpoles in the culvert.
I loved the big brick house and the enormous white barn with the smell of straw and tack.
One day when I was a pre-school child, I went to the farm with my dad. As he busied himself around the yard, I wandered into the barn. I liked to go to the look at the saddles and bridles and pretend I could ride a horse on my own.
What I remember is a blaze of white, feathered wings and a beautiful face with glowing eyes and a heart shape flying straight at me in a white whoosh. And then it was gone.
Breathless, I ran to tell my dad I’d seen an angel.
When he explained I’d seen the barn owl, I was not disappointed. Owls and angels, to my young mind, seemed equally wonderful. Heaven-sent, both.
Fast forward to my young adulthood when I wrote a bi-weekly page for The Denver Post Sunday paper. Back in the days of the big broadsheets, I had a whole page: a long feature plus a sidebar. Titled “The Nature of…” my features included plants, animals, minerals, weather—anything to do with nature. One weekend, I reported on owls. As I researched the birds, I hoped to see one. I stalked my Denver neighborhood, but I did not see any owls. I asked my hunter friend, but he did not think I would see any owls. That did not stop me from looking. I did not find any owls before I filed my story.
But years later, my sweetheart and I were walking with my dogs in a field near his home in metro Denver. An owl sailed by silently. I froze. We watched the bird glide toward a fence, pull up its wings, and land on the wooden post. We were close enough to hear the owl’s talons dig into the dry wood. We watched the bird watch my dogs. My leashed dogs watched the owl, too, which sat on the fence looking much like a cat.
The owl suddenly swept off the fence post and flew low to the ground, then attacked. We stood still. I imagined life draining out of a rabbit, a snake, a mouse or a meadow vole. But then the owl took off again, empty-taloned.
I chided my boyfriend to go see what the bird had killed, but he did not want to investigate. My curiosity got the best of me, and I walked over to see. What I found was not a small mammal, not a reptile, but a plastic bag. The thick plastic must have moved in the wind. Now it lay tattered with deep talon marks slicing plastic.
We saw that great horned owl again and again in that field over a couple of years until my boyfriend relocated. We respected the owl.
Yesterday, with the help of one of my sweetheart’s long-time patients, we saw two adult great horned owls and five owlets on three different nests. Seeing the adorable, fuzzy babies, not yet fledged, delighted me. We watched and watched, and I even collected half a dozen owlet feathers before we hiked out of the forest.
I still love birds, and I still long to fly.
I have seen owls, if not angels.