An owl is perched on the tip of the lean-to’s roof. From here, he’s got a commanding view of the guinea hen coop. When the beam from the flashlight grazes him, the mass of copper-and-white feathers takes off.The silent bird could have been mistaken for a ghost. Noiselessly lifting, wings spreading, the bird vanishes up into the starlit night. He can make plenty of sound if he wants, like a baritone mourning dove hoodoo-ing from the trees.
Though we cast them as wise, these are not gentle birds. Listen to the rabbit scream when the owl snatches him. It’s a horn-like squeal, half-pig, half-human. Now that speed and strength have failed him, the rabbit’s last resort is to repel his attacker with noise, which any bystander knows as defeat.
The harriers are back. At twilight, they course low, with easy bounding flight; they flush along ditch rows, taking both bird and mammal. Other hawks haunt the bird feeders. The sharp-shinned hawk can be observed navigating an elaborately landscaped estate with barnstormer precision.
And eagles. I did not grow up with bald eagles in the backyard, but now we expect them, especially in winter. I do not know if it is a shrinking habitat or an expanding species; I cannot say whether the birds’ presence here is a stress or a strength in the raptor world. Notes in my bird guide show that the first time I watched one here was in 2008. This is the first year that all three of them have their adult plumage: mahogany vessels tipped in white, a clean head and tail.
When you consider the number of birds in the sky and hunting, looking for food and taking it, it’s a miracle they find enough. Watch gannets pounding the ocean top, or a woodpecker hammer a branch—each sleight of design is adapted for a diet. One of the reasons to watch other kinds of animals is that their behavior can give you insights to your own.
I bagged up some of the summer wheat for retail sale. My first sign said: “wheat berries.” My brother mockingly asked, “What the hell is a ‘wheat berry’? That’s whole wheat.” Then, even after I made labels to this effect, people continued to ask me if it was faro. Wheat, when cooked, is nutty and sweet, like brown rice, only tastier. How is it? I have spent more than half my life ignorant, without this—yet one more ingredient of being here.