Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA is a hot spot for migratory birds and those who watch them, and the stars of the bird show this spring have been the owlets. In late April, the two great horned owl chicks appeared in the nest in the thorny honey locust tree, as small and fluffy as kittens with little muppet faces. At first, they mostly leaned against each other and napped. As the weeks went by, they gained more feathers, started stretching their wings and moved to other branches on the tree.
Police tape marked off a wide area so that the birders, families, and photographers that flocked to the site would keep their distance. The tape did not keep away the red-tailed hawks that also live, nest, and hunt in the cemetery. The “bird board” (a chalkboard at the front gate where bird sightings are recorded) described an incident of the red-tails attacking the owlets, and the parents (dubbed Roxanne and Alexander) fighting them off. An adult great horned owl is something to see: They stand about two feet tall, with a wingspan of about four feet (the female is slightly larger). Huge golden eyes and two tufted “ears” define their faces, and their beak and talons are clearly those of a fierce predator.
My husband and I had been visiting the nest weekly, when one day the owlets were gone; they had fledged, and we wondered if we’d ever find them again. They hadn’t gone far though, just moved to “the Dell,” a bowl-like area of tall evergreens on steep hillsides surrounding a small pond. Now fledglings, the two youngsters were more active, preening their new feathers, exploring their trees, practicing short flights, gnawing on a woody knob to sharpen their beaks, calling to mom for food.
Ever since the fledging, the most common greeting in the cemetery has been, “Have you seen the owls?” and it is a pleasure to point them out, or walk people to a good viewing spot. One family was ecstatic, saying the only reason they had come was to see the owls. Another day, our roles were reversed, and a woman visiting from Georgia revealed their favorite spot for that day. But my favorite owl-prompted encounter was with a family of four: mom, dad, son, daughter.
Walking up to us next to the Dell, they asked the usual question, and we pointed out the mother and her two offspring high in the trees, lending them our binoculars for a better view. The boy, Nico, was enthralled, and seemed to know quite a bit about them. “Great horned owls are my favorite,” he told us. When I asked how he had become interested in birds, he told us that a wildlife rehabilitator had come to his classroom several months ago and brought an owl. Recently, he’d dissected an owl pellet as well.
“Do you want to see more?” I asked. “I know a spot under their tree where they drop a lot of pellets.” The fledgling birder followed eagerly and we found several silver-dollar sized piles of grey fur and tiny bones. Some not so tiny; most were the jaws, vertebrae, and legbones of mice, but Nico picked up the remains of a hindquarter that could only have belonged to one of the healthy population of rabbits that share the cemetery with the owls, hawks, ducks, chipmunks, frogs, and coyotes that inhabit this patch of urban wild. “Can I take it home?”
I give kudos to his parents for saying yes without hesitation.
Not to be hyperbolic, but John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is fond of saying that birds can save the world. What he means by this is that birds engage so many people, and once people care about birds, they care about them not going extinct. Which leads them to care about protecting the habitat the birds need to live, as well as clean air and water and adequate food sources. In effect, the environment we all share.
Nico’s intense interest in birds may be but a childhood phase, or he may be the next E. O. Wilson. In either case, here is a young person, an adult of the future, who is totally turned on to the world, alive with curiosity, eyes peering up into the trees, fingers digging into fur and bone. In kids like him I see hope that there will be a place for owls in our future.