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.
my fiancé Tim asked me whether I ever see owls, I told him
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
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.
the following days of summer, the same owl continued to afford
me much hooting practice. I got the distinct impression that I
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
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
magical saw-whet summer which ensued.
Read Sofia Harber Bowden’s full
Read John Salazar’s full story
Read Deb Kelt’s full story
Gina Schrader’s full story
Danny Camacho’s full story
Read Writing Austin’s Lives introduction