The morning breeze still has a chill, but by mid-morning the sun has dulled its edge. Later, an evening stroll over the moor is a tolerable way to end the day, and a rewarding one, though a jacket is still needed.
On the narrow half-path that circumnavigates an area of sphagnum a black-speckled, golden feather had come to rest. I picked it up and smoothed it until the tiny barbs that line all feathers had done their work and knitted the parted fibres together again, and the feather looked like new, cotton soft, with one crisp edge.
I knew instantly which bird had lost it, and yet it is more than a year since I saw a Barn owl here. With time I had found where that solitary specimen had a part-time roost, but the jackdaws had done him out of it, mocking until he could take no more. Mayo seems to be outside the traditional range of these birds, though they could surely thrive if given the chance to do so.
I wedged the quill into a buttonhole and carried on my way. As if to the cue of my pacing ahead, a white, sepulchral shape appeared, drifting easily about four feet from the ground. So one owl, at least, is still around. I stood still to watch. From that distance it was easy to understand how supernatural beliefs have developed wherever these birds occur.
There, in the gloaming, an indefinable shape, almost luminous in appearance, comes out of the trees. In the growing dark of the witching hour it looks huge, and its silent, soaring flight pours into the imagination to foster tales of ghosts and other unkind spirits. It rounds a corner, going temporarily out of sight, and then comes that other-worldly shriek that is the Barn owl’s cry.
If within a week the news of a neighbourhood misfortune is heard, the observer remembers his encounter with the unidentified owl and recounts it to others, stumbling uncertainly over his description. The ill-formed reputation of the owl as a harbinger of doom is further sealed.
The bird’s choice of abode: ruined towers, dilapidated barns and the like, earns it no sympathy. Instead of being one who likes to live away from people it becomes one who has driven people away. Instead of having chosen to live in a ruin it is the owl that has brought ruin to the place it lives.
Shakespeare has King Henry reproach Richard of Gloucester, ‘The owl shriek’d at they birth, an evil sign’, and in Julius Caesar, Casca recalls the ominous portents which occurred prior to Caesars assassination ‘Yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day, upon the marketplace Hooting and shrieking.’
In Macbeth, too, the Bard’s three witches made sure to add ‘an owlet’s wing’ to their toxic cauldron.
We know better nowadays, or at least we should do, but I feel I cannot entrust my new friends whereabouts to others. I traced him to the lair where he rests by day. It shall remain a secret place. One of the broadsheet dailies recently carried an article outlining the trade in wild bird species, mostly for the cage bird industry. This trade is illegal, and in the times in which we find ourselves it is barely sustainable. Owls and other birds of prey are prime, high-value targets.
So I shall tell nobody. Who knows, in one of the high corners, on a bare stone shelf, a few windblown straws and gathering of dust may soon hold three white eggs. Later, a midsummer stroll might reveal a small family of fledgling owls taking flying lessons over the moor, above the tall purple spikes of loosestrife and foxglove, against a backdrop of rich summer green.
– John Shelley