When I lived on the St. Johns River in Florida, a barred owl came to visit at least one evening a week. He’d land on my porch railing and sit, quietly watching and waiting.
My neighbors to the north knew him well. Their first meeting had been a day three years before when they were fishing off the end of their dock. They had caught a fish that died before they could take it off their hook, so they’d tossed it on the dock boards behind them, planning to cook it for their cat.
But suddenly there was a great flapping of wings. The owl had swooped down from a nearby cypress tree and was maneuvering to snatch the fish. After dropping between the handrails and grabbing it in his talons, he perched thirty feet above them and devoured his prize.
The owl quickly learned that stealing fish required less effort than stalking and chasing field mice. He also learned to look cute, so when the neighbors had no fish they would offer him a chunk of raw meat.
His habit of stopping at my house began shortly after I moved in. I fell victim to his charms and started buying him cheap cuts of beef – he was far from a gourmet! I cubed the beef and kept most of it in the freezer. But I always had one small chunk thawed and available to set out for my friend. Neither my neighbors nor I wanted to make him dependent or tame, so even if he returned for a second helping, his limit was one free appetizer. After that treat, he was forced to hunt for an entrée.
The owl and I remained friends the entire two years I lived in that house, with only one minor argument. I’d hung a hummingbird feeder beneath a cypress tree, and the tiny, iridescent birds would speed in, sip some nectar, then land in the tree to rest. My husband and I would often sit on our porch in the late afternoon, drinking something tall and cold and watching the birds come and go. One evening we discovered the sharp-eyed owl had been watching the hummingbirds too. He swooped in and captured one in mid-air. A few little feathers drifted to the ground as the owl sped off with his dinner.
The next time he landed on my porch, I gave him a piece of my mind. His innocent stare was interrupted by a few blinks of his huge, brown eyes. How could I stay angry? He was a bird of prey. To his mind, hummingbirds were prey. We made up shortly after, but I felt rather guilty leaving the bird feeder in the yard. Was I luring innocent birds to their death?
My husband and I sold that house after a tornado spawned by a hurricane ripped off most of the roof and, two weeks later, another storm completely destroyed the dock. I don’t miss the house, but I do miss the owl. I honored him with a supporting role in my recent book, River of Fear. My characters are usually fictional, but the owl in the story was written from pleasant memories.
BTW, my former neighbors report the owl still comes around, and that last summer a pint-sized duplicate came along on a few visits. It appears he might be a she and, smart bird that she is, she’s teaching this particular hunting tactic to another owl generation.