Just as many real estate buyers these days are shocked to find that they haven’t acquired the rights to their underground minerals, so a modern land deal tends to leave out pre-existing bird life. Luckily, the resident family of four Great Horned Owls is one of the Funky Butte Ranch’s greatest gifts. And that’s saying a lot.
Their canyon-reverberating hoots are my low-light soundtrack, and when posted on sentry duty atop the Funky Butte itself (a crevice in which has been their nest and home since before I moved here), both parent owls are absolutely indistinguishable from Robin the Technicolor Funky Butte Ranch cat. They’ve fooled me more than once, and this despite the fact that owls are, in demeanor, in possession of an impressively unique “Owlness” that has made them such a powerful literary device from indigenous legend to A.A. Milne.
These guys hunt, adeptly, usually at sunset, but they don’t even hint at threatening any members of the Funky Butte Ranch family. Rather they dine on the annoyingly-burrowing ground squirrels that are the bane of the Funky Butte Ranch garden. (Ever see that scene in Caddyshack where the gopher pulls the entire golf hole down, flag and all? This is what these relentless squirrels do with carrots and radishes. Conventional wisdom says you have to bury chicken wire a foot deep to keep these clever burrowers out. Judging by the effectiveness of that truism, I’d say that’s about a yard too shallow.)
In swoop the owls to the rescue. I love that we Funky Butte Ranch humans overlap in geographic space with this very different species but not at all in ecological niche â€“- except to the benefit of one another. We lure the squirrels with our garden, then the owls eat them. (Is there species-specific racism? I see I’m gleefully applauding ground squirrel death, as a group, but when I see one I say, “Hello” and mean it. The squirrel is just another mammal trying to raise a family.) Funky Butte Ranch humans and owls seem to share a conceptual space, too â€“- both species being into family, meditation, local living, and nice views.
Make no mistake, the owl family is a total ally with all Right Thinking Funky Butte Ranch organisms, if they’re not official members of our family (as are, say, the goats). Then again, if the owls want to join us for dinner, as the goats often want to, I’d be up for it. But it’s much more than co-existence. We give daily verbal greetings, with all species conveying a vibe of total relaxation and respect for the others’ doing their thing.
We also mark transition in one another’s lives. That is to say, the owls wake up when we humans and dogs, goats, chickens and ducks are going to sleep, and vice versa. I enjoy drifting off to their echoing call-and-response hoots (we humans know this sound almost innately, or perhaps thanks to cartoons), knowing there will be a few less dastardly squirrels to battle in the morning. Great horned owls, in other words, are organic exterminators.
Likewise, when I’m up before dawn in the desert spring, I hear the call of the great horned owl, some migrating songbirds, and not much else. For them at this time, it’s like the parking lot scene after a three-set Dead show. For me, the show hasn’t even started.
And I presume that I play the same role for them during our mutual and friendly hooting while they fly over during the evening goat milking, so close I can see their strangely over-sized heads and seemingly too-short wings. The Funky Butte Ranch owls (I won’t call them “our” owls) appear to have two chicks this year. The photo accompanying this Dispatch is one of the parents, poking his or her head out and proving to be anything but camera shy. Long may they fly.
Postscript to the recent Dispatch about Communities of People I Like: One thing I’m discovering as I think more and more about this issue of what true, post-box store regional living might look like is that the people I hope would comprise such a community might not always be exactly those I envisioned based on surface values. Another way of saying this is not every progressive person is ready for local living (either in terms of contribution or personality), and not every person who, say, doesn’t share my views about predator/prey balance and public land use would be a terrible member of a local community.
I keep getting this lesson plopped in front of my face — from my cigarette-smoking, gravely-voiced, Obama-opposing neighbor who is not just skilled and kind-hearted but who understands sustainable resource use, to my seemingly “Hippie” neighbor who wants a kickback before giving me a reference to an honest fence contractor he used. So our “community” of the future mights not always be our exactly contiguous neighbors. We can form any way we like. My friend and neighbor Asher put it best when supplying me with some vegetable oil fuel for the Ridiculously Oversized American Truck the other day: “You’re my community,” he said. “We share resources the other needs (he meant I have the goat milk) and we like each other.”
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