by: Mark Timken, owl painting by Beatrice Timken
Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. —Rebecca Solnet, 2016, p. 4
“Look! An owl!” my partner exclaimed with surprise and excitement, pointing at a large, white bird the size of a seagull gliding away from us into the dusk. It was a cool evening in March 2017 and we were out for a final farm walk of the evening with Gus, the blocky-headed, cream-colored golden retriever. I definitely saw the owl and knew it to be a barn owl, but my internal skeptic reared up and doubted whether the owl had been perched on the deck of our owl nesting box before being surprised by our evening wander.
Like pieces of a puzzle quickly coming together, I started to make connections from some recent odd but significant events. A few nights earlier, on a similar evening stroll, I heard the most intriguing, magical sound I have ever heard. It sounded like Santa Claus and his sleigh being pulled by reindeer—a strange, jingling sound—up by the road. I felt chills erupt on my arms and I guessed that the sound was possibly a courtship song by a male barn owl and, quite possibly, we had just disturbed his partner checking out our owl box as a potential nesting site.
As a kid I always longed to live on a farm on an island. It is one of those unexplained childhood fantasies where, in retrospect, you feel like the future is luring you toward a specific ecological niche, a place the earth wants you to tend and care for. Amazingly, as an adult, and in the most serendipitous way, we found and started an organic vegetable farm and a family, on an island in the Salish Sea.
I must admit to blundering around as a rookie farmer my first year, although I was very aware of the weight of my new stewardship responsibility for the land; this initially included a unique and unexpected relationship with birds. One of the first things I did when we moved to the property was put up a hummingbird feeder. I have been feeding year round ever since and the number of hummingbirds has swelled. I also open up the bay doors to our barn on or around the spring equinox each year to make the space available to barn swallows. Again, their numbers have increased dramatically. It is not exactly Capistrano but exciting nonetheless to have a constant patrol of swallows who were born here and migrated thousands of miles to return here, working above the land, nabbing potentially crop-damaging insects. Some particular species of birds are a farmer’s best friend—the pollinators, aerial feeders, and rodent controllers.
About that time I read and learned about barn owls and how farmers in California were successfully putting up nesting boxes to attract owls to their orchards to control rodent populations without needing to use pesticides. Immediately after reading the article, I ordered two large wooden boxes that high school students were making as a fundraiser and eagerly put them up at a specific height off the ground and facing away from the prevailing wind as directed.
Then I waited. And waited. Nothing. I did some exploring around the island and tried to find the notorious barn owls behind the elementary school and the ones by the private grass-strip airport. There were barn owls on the island but for some reason they weren’t interested in my nesting boxes or this land. It seemed that I had the perfect habitat—open agricultural land and fields, mixed with forest. Years went by. I continued my efforts to improve the health of the land by using compost, planted hundreds of trees and small native shrubs, and pulled invasive plants. Eventually one of the nesting boxes rotted and fell down during a wind storm. The other box was listing badly and I had just recently been considering taking it down because it reminded me of the failed and, what I thought, hopeless project. That was until we saw Barney that night on our walk.
I am curiously aware of our human need or even compulsion, consciously or not, to anthropomorphize animals among other things. I am not proud of this weakness in myself but was simply unable not to name the owls who finally, after 10 years of not-so-patient waiting, took up residence in the nesting box a stone’s throw away from our house. They were virtually neighbors! I convinced myself it would have been rude not to name them! It took me a while and I solicited names from my family until we eventually settled on Barney and Blanche.
After the first Barney sighting, the next night around sunset, I set up my naturalist research camp. All I could think of was Jane Goodall and photos of her African research camp, notebooks, journals, gas lanterns, and her patiently sitting observing chimpanzees. I pulled out an old Crazy Creek chair, got my enormous binoculars, camera, water bottle, cell phone, warm hat, and gloves and encouraged a sleepy Gus to come outside with me; we plunked down maybe 75 feet away from the box out in the open for the best viewing. I felt like I was at a drive-in movie theater
waiting for the show to begin, minus the popcorn, head swiveling wildly in anticipation. I waited. Nothing.
Gus got fussy and eventually dug a huge hole, flinging dirt all over me, excited with his project, but no sign of Barney or Blanche. And then I got tired and the reality of an early morning had me retreating back to the house, dragging all of my stuff. The next night I pulled my camp back further away under an old willow tree that my daughter used to climb called Mother Ruby (I guess the naming thing is an issue).
Eventually, Barney dropped out of the sky like a moth, fluttering in a sing-song way with his familiar jingle, and landed in an old cherry tree next to the nesting box. He had some kind of unidentified rodent lifeless in his beak. I heard a sound from inside the nesting box. It was Blanche begging for food. It was then that I noticed, through the binoculars, Barney was looking right at Gus and me. He knew we were there and the night before we were simply too close for him to start his nightly rounds. He had waited us out. This would become a useful technique for Barney to gain some privacy. It was our first lesson in boundaries with our new neighbors and it would not be the last.
Last fall I volunteered as a Salmonwatcher for the Vashon Nature Center and was in contact with Kelly Keenan, the coordinator of the program. After I felt like I had enough evidence and proof of my discovery with the owls not to embarrass myself, I contacted Kelly for her support and wisdom. My primary concern was the condition of the nesting box. It looked like it was about to fall down at any moment and was in need of further support and maintenance. Kelly encouraged me, much to my concern and anxiety, not to disturb the box or the area now that we
believed Blanche was incubating her eggs.
Kelly generously allowed me to borrow a trail camera with night video capabilities to help understand more of what was happening. Each morning I would visit the camera attached to a ladder in front of the nesting box, retrieve the memory card, and review the videos of the night before on my computer. These 10-second video clips look like X-rays in the dark night sky, but proved to be my window into the world of barn owls and provided incredible details and insight that would have been lost to me prior to this type of technology.
The camera did prove what we initially believed—Barney and Blanche were using the nesting box and Blanche had finished laying eggs and now remained in the box, completely dependent on Barney for her survival. Kelly told me of another nesting box that she was monitoring across the island; she had a theory that potentially fledged barn owls from that box had found my nesting box and knew this type of establishment to be a safe and respectable place
to raise their young. My courting had paid off.
This is where I have to admit that I started to worry and become overly attached to the success of this endeavor and my anxiety about the necessity of its success. There were times at night during winter storms when the wind was blowing so hard, pummeling the house, that I would think of Blanche alone in the rickety box swaying around and I was convinced it was going to fall over, dashing the hope of more barn owls in the world. My mind went to extremes
—dashing the hope of all species. Each morning, much to my disbelief, the nesting box remained standing and the process unfolded just as it was intended.
One afternoon I got a text from Kelly reporting that a male barn owl had been hit by a car and killed. Barney, I immediately thought. It took me two excruciating nights of watching at the camp and video checking to confirm it was not Barney but indeed another unfortunate victim or victims, considering the impact of a single parent in this type of situation. I anxiously thought of raccoons, crows, mink, neighbors who use rat poisons, all the possible ways an owl could die. I had fantasies of rushing out in the middle of the night in the wet and wind trying to rescue owlets from predators, desperately attempting to alter the course of nature. Like the parent of a newborn child, I was exhausted and stressed and eventually I had to come around to the fact that this might not work out the way I wanted it to. There simply were no guarantees.
There is a process of life and death happening and I am witness to it in an intimate way but I have little control over the outcome. I am aware of the external, collective anxiety around climate change and the almost desperate need for “good” things to happen in the face of what is perceived as being all the “bad.” Part of my process included going to a place of imagined hopelessness before I could swing back to find hope again.
Eventually all the collective team-work paid off for Barney and Blanche. Three gigantic, rodent-laden owlets emerged in May with incessant, raucous, and distinct begging calls. The peaceful nights of watching the nesting box from under Mother Ruby changed quickly as Blanche also emerged and proved to be a fierce and intimidating mother determined to protect her offspring from harm. She has a terrifying warning scream that, when emitted, sends me immediately in the opposite direction, instinctively ducking, covering my head with my arms complete with visions of having my skull ripped open, even though she has never actually attacked anyone, not even Gus. My once glorious research camp has now been reduced to a partial view of the nesting box from my closet and, of course, the ever- important nightly video haul.
There is something magical about going from zero barn owls to five flying around the farm that adds a distinct flavor of wildness and giddy chaos. The newly emerged siblings, in their floundering initial attempts to learn how to fly, launched themselves clumsily into nearby trees and practiced landing on the roof of the house, skittering and thumping across the metal above our heads. Neighbors expressed concern and curiosity about “all that noise” coming from our farm; do you know anything about those owls, they inquired. There were barn owls everywhere,
on fence posts, in the trees, on the roof, flopping in and out of the fields. Eventually the plenitude of owls shifted, the siblings fledged, one by one, until only Barney and Blanche remained and, with no pomp or celebration, they started mating again; a second brood is on the way. Can I say that again—a second brood is on the way!
In retrospect, watching owls became a necessity, a strange fascination, and triggered a certain primordial excitement—a genetically programmed longing for connections with the rest of the living world (Clinebell, 1996, p. 41). There is something vitally important for me about sitting outside, with Gus nearby chewing on pieces of random wood, at dusk, most nights, that is grounding and helps alleviate a collective, gnawing anxiety about the helplessness at the edge of the environmental abyss. The longer I sit and observe, the more I can feel my nervous system relax, which is followed by more presence and awareness to what is occurring around me—the sights, sounds, smells.
The genetic longing I feel is to be deeply reconnected to the ecological systems and to help promote a healthy and viable system, a system that produces bountiful, healthy food for humans, elegant swallows, darting, pollinating hummingbirds, and magnificent barn owls, to name a few. If I am paying careful attention, I am aware that something hopeful is unfolding all around me and I am playing a part in making it happen. When Barney and Blanche selected this farm, this land, to raise their family, it in some way confirmed and validated for me that my conservation efforts were paying off, as owls are indicator species—they indicate the health of the land.
Putting up the owl boxes was hope in the form of action. Sure, I could sit here and hope that owls would nest on the farm. By putting up the nesting boxes I made an offering to the mystery, a courting gesture, that said—you are welcome here and I will do my part. I didn’t know what the outcome would be, but I did it just the same. I have been told that owls can hear a human heartbeat from a spectacular distance. Sometimes I wonder if Barney and Blanche can hear my heartbeat accelerate when they show themselves at twilight. Maybe they can sense my intention to help them and my deep curiosity about them. I can’t help but feel grateful that I am in a reciprocal relationship with these owls—an amazing partnership with beauty and wildness.
Mark P. Timken is a nature-based psychotherapist and a founder/stakeholder of the Vashon Wilderness Program.
Clinebell, H. (1996). Ecotherapy: Healing ourselves, healing the earth. Binghampton, NY: Haworth Press.
Solnit, R. (2016). Hope in the dark: Untold histories, wild possibilities. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.