Pamelia saw it first—a fluffy bundle lying still in the snow under a small spruce. "Craig, what is that?" she asked. The panic in her voice cut through me. "Is that our owl?"
Pamelia and I had been thrilled that a barred owl was living on the property. He would show up just before sunset. One of his roosts overlooked a shed in which field mice sometimes take up winter residence. Red and gray squirrels race up and down the surrounding trees. It was a fine place for an owl to hunt.
I did worry that the owl was perched out in the open. He seemed exposed, especially in an area patrolled by eagles and goshawks (one of which killed an American black duck here just over a week ago: http://naturalistsnote.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/final-hours-of-a-duck/). Owls generally aren't eager to reveal their presence. They often hunt at night, using their extraordinary hearing. The flat, round faces that give them their distinctive look also serve as satellite dishes, collecting sounds that pinpoint the location and movement of prey, even beneath the snow. But barred owls are something of an exception; they do come out in the daytime to hunt. They are bolder.
I made my way through knee-deep snow to get to the downed owl. He was indeed dead. One wing was propped on a branch. Part of his other wing was slightly covered with snow, suggesting he had died just before—or even during—the previous night's storm. I saw no blood or wounds. Pamelia wondered if he could have accidentally struck nearby power lines. Many millions of birds die every year from flying into buildings and other human-built structures. The storm would have made flying difficult. But Pamelia also remembered seeing the goshawk high in a tree near this very spot the previous day. He was probably responsible, we mused.
Owls are fraught with symbolism. Humans have long linked them not only with wisdom but also with sorcery and evil. The Romans, Aztecs, Mayans and others saw them as omens of death. Native American tribes have held a vast range of beliefs about owls, some seeing them as sources of protection, others viewing them as bearers of the souls of the dead, others linking them with special powers and fatal foreshadowing. Neither Pamelia nor I harbor superstitious beliefs about animals (or anything else), but she couldn't help being jarred by finding the owl on a day of great contemplation: her 50th birthday.
She pondered it all while under the tree with the owl yesterday. She found solace and wisdom in an account she'd read by naturalist writer Marie Winn of an owl being killed by another owl. While she walked back to the house with a feather in her hand destined for a painted memory study, trying to rid herself of the pit in her stomach, it came to her that, in her words, "this connection and recent layer of experience (along with having carried around a mortally wounded sea duck the week before as he took his final breaths) only further deepens and makes richer my own natural relationship with life—deep sadness or sparkling joy or mind-expanding contemplative solitude, participating and taking it all in. As I've long known, it's important to be wide awake during my fleeting and very puny existence. My life has emerged, just like the owl's, on a tiny planet in an infinite and fascinating universe. I get only one chance at this moment to be me, with eyes wide open, before my atoms sink back into the Earth's biological and elemental soup, this vast living system where the owl and I both came from. This always comforts me. Locking eyes with that owl was a marvelous life experience. Finding him dead on my 50th birthday, two days later, well, deal with it, Pamelia, his atoms are moving on, it's life at its core, what a gift."
Pluto Follow-Up: Thank you to Laurel Kornfeld for writing in on behalf of Pluto and its worthiness as a planet. "Only four percent of the IAU [International Astronomical Union] voted on the controversial demotion [of Pluto in 2006], and most are not planetary scientists," she wrote. "Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto." She adds that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson "admits that the debate is not over, that it might be too early in the study of planetary scientists for anyone to be defining what a planet is in the first place." If you'd like to continue to follow the Pluto debate, check out Laurel's Pluto Blog: http://laurele.livejournal.com/
Super Bowl Follow-Up:
Our chemical analysis of the two starting Super Bowl quarterbacks in the last post predicted a 10-point Packers victory over the Steelers. Green Bay won by six. Aaron Rodgers lived up to his uniform number, 12, which matches the atomic number of the explosive element magnesium. Score one for the predictive power of science.
Answer to Last Puzzler:
From smallest the largest, the planets of our solar system go in this order (starting with Pluto, the smallest of all, if you include that): Mercury, Mars, Venus, Earth, Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter. Here's a fun website that allows you to compare any two planets: http://www.sciencenetlinks.com/interactives/messenger/psc/PlanetSize.html
Which is greater: The height of the world's tallest mountain (Mount Everest) above sea level or the depth of the deepest spot in the ocean (the Mariana Trench) below sea level? Extra credit question: Is the Mariana Trench closer to Japan, Chile or South Africa?
Jules Verne, the French writer who pioneered science fiction and sparked imaginations the world over with books like A Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days, would have been 183 years old today. At boarding school he is said to have been taught by inventor Brutus de Villeroi, who went on to design the U.S. Navy's first submarine and perhaps provided Verne with the inspiration for the Nautilus, Captain Nemo's submarine in the author's best-known work, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. That title, by the way, refers not to the depth to which the sub descended but the distance it traveled while undersea. The length of a league has varied from culture to culture (it was based on the distance a person or a horse could walk in an hour), but in France in Verne's day it was 4 kilometers, or about two-and-a-half miles. Twenty thousand of those would be 50,000 miles.
Thomas Selfridge, the San Francisco-born aircraft designer and dirigible pilot who became the first person ever killed in the crash of a powered airplane, would have been 129 today. Selfridge was a passenger in a double-winged plane piloted by Orville Wright at an Army base in Fort Myer, Va., on Sept. 17, 1908, when the aircraft—a Wright Flyer, the same type Orville and his brother Wilbur had flown historically at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903—developed a series of problems that started when a propeller broke. The plane nosedived from 75 feet. Orville Wright suffered major injuries that kept him hospitalized for seven weeks. Selfridge died from a broken skull. He remains a reminder of the cost of scientific exploration.
Chester Carlson, the Seattle-born physicist and inventor of the process we call Xeroxing, would have been 105 today. Forced at age eight to start working to support his illness-wracked family, Carlson nevertheless continued his education, fascinated by science and the idea of inventing things. He seemed destined to become the pioneer of copying: He loved typewriters, his favorite toy was a rubber-stamp set, and his work at a patent office taught him the drudgery of making multiple copies of documents using carbon paper. His work ethic (he even put himself through law school) kept him going even when there was little early interest in his "electrophotography" copying process. After he hooked up with a corporate partner, that process was renamed xerography (combining the Greek words for dry and writing) and the first commercial photocopying machine, introduced in 1949, was called the XeroX.