The Story of the Neighborhood Owl

Hornblower AKA, Muhammad Owli

The owl turned up on Tillamook Street right before Thanksgiving.

My wife, Shara, noticed some crows having a fit about something in an old birch tree in our yard on a Monday morning. To her surprise, there appeared to be a Great Horned Owl sitting on a branch 30 feet up. She told my cousin, Liz, an avid birder who lives behind us on Thompson Street. We pulled out the binoculars. We gawked. We pointed it out to passersby, including a troupe of children from a nearby pre-school. It wasn’t just the crows who were upset. A pair of hummingbirds that live in our yard buzzed the owl repeatedly. But the owl — he? she? — barely flinched. At one point, it moved its neck suddenly and — I swear — a crow that was squawking at it jumped. We saw the owl’s talons through the binoculars. They looked sharp and powerful. We figured a predator like that isn’t easily perturbed. I called the Portland Audubon Society. They were impressed. They said Great Horned Owls are rarely seen in the city. Shara and I continued to tell everyone we could find. The owl was still in the birch tree at dusk when our daughters got home from school, so they got a chance to see it. Liz had the great fortune of seeing the great bird fly off before the sun completely set.

We figured that was it. It wasn’t.

But be prepared: the end of the story is not fairy-tale happy.

The week after Thanksgiving, the owl returned. This time it was sitting in a maple tree in a yard behind us. A whole new crop of neighbors got a glimpse of the owl. A naming competition ensued. Shara wanted to call the owl Hornblower because we had recently been watching a series about a courageous English sailor named Horatio Hornblower. Our neighbors were unimpressed. One wanted to call it Muhammad Owli. I can’t remember all the names that were bandied about. We talked about breaking out a window in the abandoned house next door to us to let it roost. We were all ready to go down to the Department of Fish & Wildlife and sign the adoption papers.

The next morning I was folding laundry when I saw the crows going nuts over by the maple tree. This time, seagulls had joined in the dive-bombing and yapping. Shara rushed through the back yard. She came back a few minutes later. The owl was now perched on the back of a house on Thompson Street. We took photos. We called The Oregonian, which sent out a photographer to take photos. Everyone was again abuzz about the neighborhood owl.

On Saturday, Shara found the owl in our backyard, lifeless with a huge gash on its neck. Our worst thought was that someone shot it. I called the Audubon Society and asked if I could bring it in. When one of the biologists in the Wildlife Care Center saw it, she said it was a large female owl. She said it was the time of year when Great Horned Owls fought over territory and also paired up. Maybe this owl was injured in a fight with another owl. She said they would do their version of an autopsy.

We had come to see the owl’s presence as propitious. But her death left us saddened, particularly by the awful possibility that someone would have taken a shot at such a beautiful creature. I called Audubon the next morning. The woman on the phone said there was no indication of a gunshot wound. What we thought was an injury was actually caused by internal hemorrhaging. The working hypothesis was that the owl had eaten some poisoned rats. The Wildlife Care Center had recently received a dead Red Tailed Hawk in similar condition. Both birds were well fed. If they had come across easy prey, like slow-moving rats, they would have kept eating them, even as the toxins built up in their bodies. More tests were planned.

The woman on the phone said the owl probably took about three days to die. That means when she first arrived before Thanksgiving, she was likely healthy. Was this another example of wildlife adapting to urban environments? Would we be seeing more owls? We see hawks frequently. Two friends have seen coyotes in inner N.E. Portland. I’m also tempted to worry that the real moral of the story is that it’s a reminder of our toxic urban landscape. The fact that farmers and ranchers use poison as well doesn’t erase this feeling.

Which story do we take from this? I’m saddened by the owl’s departure. But I also feel fortunate to have seen it at such a close distance. I also really appreciate the shared neighborhood experience. It wasn’t on YouTube or my iPod. We would grab our neighbors as they walked down the street. They would tell us about the squirrel and the Cooper’s Hawk that were badgering the owl. We went into each other’s backyards to get the best view. At one point, I offered to show my neighbor, Steve, a really beautiful photo that the photographer from The Oregonian shared with us. I asked Steve for his email address.

He said: I’m offline.

So I will have to bring him a copy in person, which will give me a chance to see all the work he has been doing on his house.