…soul in the sky

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I have found the headless bodies of rabbits and blue jays, and known it was the great horned owl that did them in, taking the heads only, for the owl has an insatiable craving for the taste of brains.
Mary Oliver

The Owl

When you are ten or twelve, you go birdwatching in the early-dawn light. Once, you see a barn owl in flight, swift and silent above your head, a hunting ghost. You collect owl pellets from the pine-cushioned floor, tight bundles of fur and feathers and skeletal remains that you take home to soak in water until the bundle loosens and releases its treasure, a collection of sliverous bones and the ultimate prize, a tiny bird skull. You use pins to clean the muck from the eye sockets and beak, you bleach it white and store it in a matchbox which you peer into often.

The Sparrow

You find an injured sparrow in the garden, one leg reduced to a swollen stump. You cannot imagine what could have caused such an injury, but it was likely a predator of some kind, perhaps a cat too slow-witted to gather the whole bird. Your father holds him in his wide palm and explains that he can’t be saved and we have a duty to end his suffering. You know this already. You have grown up in a village in the countryside where learning how to care for animals is as important as learning how to kill them. But this particular lesson your father chooses to carry out away from you, performing the task quietly and, you imagine, swiftly.

The Jackdaw

Your father brings home a box from his work at the quarry. When he places it gently on the floor it shifts and shuffles. A snake! you think, but no, when he opens the lid there is a fledgeling jackdaw who was abandoned by her mother, or so your father believes. You keep her in the garage, construct a perch from whatever you can find, feed her seeds and worms. Your father teaches you to shake a tin of seeds every time you feed her. This is how you learn about associative behaviour, the Pavlov effect. When the bird is strong enough you take her outside and let her fly to the giant tree behind your house to join the rooks and crows and her brothers and sisters, the grey-headed jackdaws. When it is feeding time you shake the tin and she returns… and returns… and returns…. until one day she doesn’t. You are simultaneously sad and glad about this. You have lost your connection with this wild animal, your temporary pet, but you nurtured her out of fledglinghood, watched her joy at being alive grow stronger, her eyes eager to see more than the cool dark room of incarceration.

So now she sees the leaves and bark of the trees, feels the wind ruffle through her feathers, digs deep into the earth to draw out a worm, hears the song and the movement of her fellow flighted world.

Can any creature be living her life more fully than the jackdaw?

(Mary Oliver quote from Owls in her essay collection Upstream)

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