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Writing Austin's Lives: More than 800 residents tell their stories in Humanities Institute community project

Speaks With Owls

For Tim Bigham

By Aletha Irby

I live in Hyde Park and am in fact one of that most Austin of characters, a Hyde Park Poet. Well before the sun arises I wake for my morning run. My 4 to 5:30 a.m. route takes me south down Red River Street and through the University of Texas campus. Running at this time allows me to encounter members of nocturnal tribes I wouldn’t normally see—possums, raccoons, bats, yellow-crested night herons, pale pink geckos, toads, the occasional snake, and moths the size of my right hand with wings like beaded moccasins.

Aletha Irby stands beneath a large tree that she passes on her morning run

Aletha Irby

When my fiancé Tim asked me whether I ever see owls, I told him I’d never seen an owl in my life. He said I could start by learning to hear them. We spent portions of several nights outside Hyde Park and Huntsville, and whenever he heard an owl vocalize in the distance, he would call my attention to the sound. As a result I began to be able to hear owls during my early morning runs. They seemed to be all around me.

The first owl I saw was small and brown though she had an impressive wingspan. She alighted in a live oak tree by the fine arts building on the University of Texas campus, across the street from the Texas Memorial Museum. Inspired by Tim, who speaks to birds in their own languages and to whom birds respond in kind, I stopped under the large old tree and hooted at her. But she behaved as if the sound hurt her ears, and after shaking her head in distaste, flew away.

I was disappointed but when I peered up into the other thick branches of the same live oak tree, I saw eight other owls of her kind staring down at me. It was an odd feeling to go in a split-second from never having seen an owl to being surrounded by an entire clan of them. I had never been so glad in my life that I wasn’t a field mouse. Though they weren’t large owls, I was intimidated by their numbers, and continued my run without any further attempt at communication.

However a few days later I heard another owl—this one a male—vocalize just above my head as I ran under the same tree. Stopping, I looked up at him—he was perched on a low branch in plain view. I hooted at him, he hooted at me, and I hooted back at him, and continued in that manner for some time in a polite exchange, each of us taking our turns, neither interrupting the other.

During the following days of summer, the same owl continued to afford me much hooting practice. I got the distinct impression that I provided entertainment for him. I did not know what kind of owl he was until I consulted my “Stokes Field Guide to Birds.” Under the photograph which most resembled my owl was a telling statement: “[The] Saw-whet is sometimes incredibly tame.” I thought about that statement further during the owlish early mornings, and determined that a more accurate statement might be, “Some saw-whet owls surprise us with their intelligence and openness to interspecies interaction.”

One morning as I ran down the sidewalk west of the UT Fine Arts Library, I heard a double hoot behind me and half-turned my head, my peripheral vision just catching a wide flash of brown wings alighted in the tree under which I’d just run. Assuming I was witnessing a clan of saw-whets behind me interacting with one another, I continued running when I heard a second vocalization, and saw the same brown wings gliding into the next tree under which I’d passed. Finally occurring to me that it might be my saw-whet, I stopped and walked back to find him perched expectantly on a low branch as if awaiting another opportunity to tutor me in owl-speak. We enjoyed our normal lengthy conversation—I think it covered even more time for him since I gathered that owl-time moves more rapidly than human-time.

That an owl had been following me was a little eerie but also delightful. I felt like a child again, albeit in an Addams Family, Harry Potteresque sort of way. Mom, this owl followed me home. Can I keep him?

My saw-whet was fully aware that in order for me to see him he must advertise his presence. His wings were so silent in flight that the monarch butterflies who wing south past my ears every Austin autumn are positively raucous in comparison.

Once, instead of vocalizing, he noiselessly dive-bombed my Nikes, scaring the daylights out of me and almost causing me to trip over my own two feet. Occasionally, though, I did manage to spy him before he saw me as he perched on the UT Music building’s low square sign post facing away from me, his distinctive silhouette almost cat-like.

When I look at Austin, when I think of Austin, I will always think of the love of my life, Tim, teaching me to listen to and to speak with owls, and of the magical saw-whet summer which ensued.

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Photo: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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