“The Owl Critic”

“The Owl Critic”

Several years ago, two barn owls set up housekeeping in the hayloft of the old barn at my place. From seven eggs, the pair hatched four owlets, but they weren’t safe. The nest had been made on the top of a stack of square hay bales in a corner, but a crafty raccoon or possum must have found them, as one day the little ones had simply vanished. I was sick about that, and asked my friend Mike Mothersbaugh to build a nesting box for the owls, and mount it high up on the north wall of the loft, where no nasty varmints could get to it. Following a design from the conservation department’s website, he completed the job as requested, and every once in a while I climb the stairs in the barn to check for signs of occupants. Finally, this summer. . . success!

While it was fascinating to watch the progress of the little white fuzz-heads with the big dark eyes, I tried to keep my visits to a minimum so as not to disturb the family. Each time, though, I would speak softly to the owls, telling them how honored I was that they’d chosen my barn as their home, and how perfectly beautiful they are. Some days they would listen to me, tilting their heads to one side or the other from a perch far above my head, doing a little bob-n-weave move to bring me into better focus. Soon there were at least two fledglings–maybe three–out and about with the parents, learning to fly in the hayloft and later moving outside at twilight for hunting lessons. I learned about the various sounds they make, and what they eat (lots of mice and voles!) and examined the odd-looking pellets they cough up after they’ve digested all the nutrients from their prey. Captivating and shy, these barn owls have me enthralled. Maybe it’s because of a favorite poem that my sister and I memorized as children. I hope you’ll like it too . . . it’s a Hoot!

The Owl-Critic                                               

by James Thomas Fields (1817-1881)

“Who stuffed that white owl?”

No one spoke in the shop,
The barber was busy, and he couldn’t stop;
The customers, waiting their turns, were all reading
The “Daily,” the “Herald,” the “Post,” little heeding
The young man who blurted out such a blunt question;
Not one raised a head, or even made a suggestion;
And the barber kept on shaving.

“Don’t you see, Mr. Brown,”
Cried the youth, with a frown,
“How wrong the whole thing is,
How preposterous each wing is,
How flattened the head is, how jammed down the neck is —
In short, the whole owl, what an ignorant wreck ’tis!
I make no apology;
I’ve learned owl-eology.

I’ve passed days and nights in a hundred collections,
And cannot be blinded to any deflections
Arising from unskillful fingers that fail
To stuff a bird right, from his beak to his tail.
Mister Brown! Mr. Brown!
Do take that bird down,
Or you’ll soon be the laughingstock all over town!”
And the barber kept on shaving.

“I’ve studied owls,
And other night-fowls,
And I tell you
What I know to be true;
An owl cannot roost
With his limbs so unloosed;
No owl in this world
Ever had his claws curled,
Ever had his legs slanted,
Ever had his bill canted,
Ever had his neck screwed
Into that attitude.
He cant do it, because
‘Tis against all bird-laws.

Anatomy teaches,
Ornithology preaches,
An owl has a toe
That can’t turn out so!
I’ve made the white owl my study for years,
And to see such a job almost moves me to tears!
Mr. Brown, I’m amazed
You should be so gone crazed
As to put up a bird
In that posture absurd!
To look at that owl really brings on a dizziness;
The man who stuffed him don’t half know his business!”
And the barber kept shaving.

“Examine those eyes
I’m filled with surprise
Taxidermists should pass
Off on you such poor glass;
So unnatural they seem
They’d make Audubon scream,
And John Burroughs laugh
To encounter such chaff.
Do take that bird down;
Have him stuffed again, Brown!”
And the barber kept on shaving!

“With some sawdust and bark
I could stuff in the dark
An owl better than that.
I could make an old hat
Look more like an owl
Than that horrid fowl,
Stuck up there so stiff like a side of coarse leather.
In fact, about him there’s not one natural feather.”

Just then, with a wink and a sly normal lurch,
The owl, very gravely, got down from his perch,
Walked around, and regarded his fault-finding critic
(Who thought he was stuffed) with a glance analytic,
And then fairly hooted, as if he should say:
“Your learning’s at fault this time, anyway:
Don’t waste it again on a live bird, I pray.
I’m an owl; you’re another. Sir Critic, good day!”
And the barber kept on shaving.