|| By Rebecca Lawton
Owls. Owls. Owls keep me up at night.
Not in the way you might think, where mating calls and sudden screeches break the night into scudding dreams. Not because I fear some freak attack, where swooping wings and grasping talons are aimed inexplicably at me instead of at the usual gray squirrel or vole.
Instead it is the absence of the owl’s ghostly hoots—alone, in call and response, or in two-part harmony—that I lose sleep over.
When I first moved to my tree-lined neighborhood, owl calls were often nightly entertainment. There were great horned owls whoo-ing from the Doug firs out my window on crisp evenings with full moons. There were phantom shapes of barn owls, shrieking above The Plaza treetops every Tuesday evening during farmers markets. There was
the rare call of the spotted owl, the soft tremolo worth staying up for well into the early hours before dawn. And there was the trill of the occasional screech owl, which I’ve still seen only dead or in captivity but have heard more than once in the trees of backyards and vacant lots.
All this changed after the habitat was transformed. One of my neighbors felled his grove of redwoods after a windstorm brought one crashing into the pool across the street. Chainsaws not long thereafter signaled the end of another towering redwood two doors down. The acres of pasture down the street were converted to mini-mansions with lawns and hedges and swimming pools. Next, a mature Doug fir next door, cut into sections, limited the size of a multi-lot forest that had included my yard. Finally the new owner of a magnificent, spreading live oak over my back fence limbed it, illuminated it with all-night spotlights, and kept his house shining in the four directions around the clock.
Whether due to the newly de-forested neighborhood, to the lights that discourage nesting, or to larger forces and global changes, the owls outside my bedroom window called no more.
A move across town to a house “under the live oaks” closer to the mountains buoyed my heart. Again I was lulled to sleep by great horned owls echoing each other’s calls through the fading light, and in the deepest nights I heard a spotted owl I was certain lived just up the street. Reassured by the presence of the primal, feathered Other, I slept soundly. All was in its place in the world. The owls, the voices of forest health and nocturnal hunts, were on the job. We were not yet a monoculture of people, people, and more people. We still shared our space—even our urban world—with species whose needs really reflect our own: healthy environment, biodiversity, dark night skies that allow rest (or in the case of nocturnal birds, cover and anonymity).
But for every step forward one neighbor makes—a backyard converted to bird oasis, an ecologist called before trees are felled—two steps are taken backward. Recently I attended a cocktail hour where some new neighbors shared how they were having a heck of a time keeping wildlife out of their yard. Blessed with the means to buy several acres at the foot of the wildest mountain left in the area, their nights were not as restful in the presence of nature as mine.
“We just put in a quarter-acre lawn,” said the husband. “And now I can’t keep the deer from grazing it.”
Another neighbor asked innocently, “Why don’t you plant something they won’t, y’know, eat?”
“I have to see green out my front window!”
Apparently not the green of bay trees, Doug firs, live oaks, monkeyflowers, and coyote bush that were no doubt there before he planted the turf.
Audubon magazine recommends measures to bring birds and wildlife back to our neighborhoods. Clean water, plants with flowers for nectar and insects, fruits to provide fuel for migration in the winter months, layers of plants for cover, and nesting habitat and materials are key. Native plants, those that mimic the surrounding natural plant communities, provide flowers, fruits, scents, and complex structure that birds have evolved with, as humans have evolved with the types of food that sustain us best. “From predators to prey, and from pollinators to dispersers of seeds, the important functions of birds in our environments cannot be overstated,” claim California Partners in Flight and Point Blue Conservation Science. Loss of habitat is often the primary reason of the loss of birds and wildlife.
When I suggested to the new resident that many of us love wildlife and were attracted to the area because of it, he scowled. “There were six bucks out on my lawn this morning. And there are coyotes, too, and mountain lions. I’m going to have to get a gun!”
Better yet, he could forget the gun and move to a condo complex where the lawns are green and tended for those who love them. He could leave the acres he feels he must transform to the rest of us. And he would thereby respect the rights of the original residents here: foxes, quail, rattlesnakes (he kills those on sight), skunks, deer. And owls. The wise, prescient, sensitive, vulnerable owls, whose voices assure me not to fret at night.
Rebecca Lawton is an author, instructor, and natural scientist whose books include the San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller Reading Water: Lessons from the River (Capital), the novel Junction, Utah (van Haitsma Literary), and the forthcoming Sacrament: Homage to a River with photographer Geoff Fricker (Heyday). Visit her at beccalawton.com.
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Photo montage by Andreas Jones.