Down With the Gopher, Up With the Owl
In Saco, along a stream that empties into a tidal marsh, there is a rectangular stand of woods. The woods are flanked by the following: to the west, the marsh; to the north, a golf course; to the east, a quiet highway and summer homes; and to the south, the Atlantic Ocean. Inside these woods, crammed in by humanity and the sea, spring has begun.
The snow cover is deep and icy here. There is not a green leaf to be found – not yet. But around sundown, a few residents are calling in the inevitable thaw. Two great horned owls haunt these woods. The first time I came to Maine was eight years ago, and during my first night in Saco I heard what I can only assume are the same owls I heard this evening.
Great horned owls are one of the most widespread birds in the world. They are unfathomably rugged, strong, adaptable creatures. They live from the edge of the tundra to the tropics, in deserts and forests, throughout prairies and mountains. They can hunt just about anything that crawls, flies, or slithers, even animals larger than themselves. They eat skunks. They eat porcupines. A friend of mine once saw a red-tailed hawk kill a rabbit; like an air force strike, a great horned owl emerged from the woods in broad daylight and killed the hawk, then ate them both (parts of them, anyway). This is one of the reasons they are able to live in such diverse habitats. Great horned owls are not picky. They are scrapers.
While as a species they cover some ground, as individuals they are quite sedentary, often defending a territory for life. And with a territory like the one in Saco, our locals have had little reason to move. Within a few miles they have dense woods, marshes and open fields – think food. Varying habitats mean varying food sources – ducks and other waterfowl, small rodents in the woods, medium-sized mammals that may prefer the field edges. With a wingspan over four feet, these two silently reign over a small, wealthy kingdom.
But what was I saying about spring?
When we think of nesting birds, we think of the waxing days of May, insects flitting through the air. We think of spring’s vibrant abundance. But spring actually starts subtly. March is a month of easing in before April’s explosion, of melting and softening. And although we think of February as the cold heart of winter, it is in fact the Great Horned Owl’s courting and nesting season. They sit on eggs in February, in the snow. Those eggs hatch around the time the migrating flocks begin to land. By the time spring is in full bloom, this pair will have several gaping maws to feed, just when life is thickest. Pretty good timing, actually.
I never cared much for Punxsutawney Phil. If Groundhog Day is nothing else, it is merely a reminder that winter is tough on the human psyche, so tough that we look to a quasi-fictional rodent to fulfill a promise he never keeps. Do you know what a great horned owl would do if she saw Phil on February 2nd? She would eat him.
The owls remind me that despite our attempts to force the spring, spring always comes right on time.
By Jack Rodolico
Learn more about the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies at www.salt.edu.