Thanksgiving and Owls
Like many, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. In my case, it probably has a lot to do with being so close to the land and having a holiday that coincides with the end of the growing season here on the farm. As I reflect on the season past, I always enjoy the inevitable celebration (good years and bad) and am always thankful for whatever bounty the perennial collaboration of the farm and I yield.
Of course the feast, the family, the friends and the fête are all wonderful but my favorite moments are at the end of the day when the farm is quiet and I take my annual Thanksgiving walk outside just to be still for a while. Thanksgiving night this year was clear and cold.
I crossed the lane and walked into the field opposite the farm house and looked up into the frozen crystal universe. I found myself an audience of one for billions of stars performing their tremulous dance of billions of years. Beholding a star filled sky on a crisp, clear, winter’s night in the country, far away from any light pollution, is one of only a few ways to really see it. I’ve experienced this miracle thousands of times and this time like all the others was as if it were the first. The beginnings and ends of seasons are not dictated by the Julian calendar for me. In my calendar, the night of Thanksgiving is the sweet end of autumn and the beginning of the quiet season that is winter. Standing alone in the field, I embraced the cold and it embraced me.
For a while the only movement was the mute twinkling of the stars. After several moments of peaceful solitude, the silence was perforated by the plaintive hoots of a great horned owl from the woods at the top of the field. It was her evening announcement, “This is where I’ll be hunting for my thanksgiving feast tonight. Friends and relatives not invited.”There are two distinct species of owls in the world, the barn owl which is comprised of about 20 sub species and true owls, which is a group of about 190 subs. Eight different owls can be found here on the farm at one time or another including the endangered Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus). The great horned owl with their prominent ear tufts (which have nothing to do with hearing) is sometimes called the “hoot owl” and is a year round resident here on the farm. Not all owls hoot. Hisses, screeches and beeps are just a few of the calls that different owls make and many have different vocalizations for different communications such as territory, food breeding, etc. They’re generally solitary birds but on the rare occasion that there are a group of owls, you wordsmiths would call the group a parliament or a stare. They are also generally quiet birds. Their calls are usually only to announce their presence in a hunting or breeding area to others.
Many birds of prey rely heavily on their sight to locate prey. Like primates, owls have binocular vision, enabling them to pinpoint prey in a 3D field of vision, but unlike primates they can’t move their eyes. They move their heads instead and many owls can twist their heads more than 270 degrees. They have extraordinary hearing. This incredible hearing is the result of their unusual ear placement. While the ears of most animals are symmetrically positioned on the head, the ears of most owls are asymmetrical. One ear is actually lower that the other. Faint sounds, such as a mouse scurrying underneath the leaves on the forest floor, reaches each of the ears differently and the owl is able to pin point the location of the sound by triangulation and the owl can accurately detect the mouse from 60 feet away. A similar thing happens when a dog cocks his head to one side or the other trying to locate and understand the source or the subtle nuances in a word or sound which he has to do because his ears are symmetrical. The large ring of feathers around owls’ eyes, called facial discs, also aid in hearing by actually directing the sound in from of an owl to its ear canals not unlike satellite dishes.
Another attribute which make owls excellent hunters are soft downy serrations on the wing tips which reduce turbulence and completely muffle the sound of their wing beats, allowing them to swoop down on prey in absolute silence. I remember one autumn afternoon many years ago as I was strolling through a patch of woods, an enormous great horned owl with a wing span of about 5 feet flew past me from behind and quite close to my right side. I didn’t hear a thing and only became aware of his presence when he approached my peripheral vision only a few feet away from my head. I’m pretty sure I lost 2 or 3 years off my life at that moment.
Throughout history, and in many cultures around the world, owls have garnered a bad reputation often associated with death, curses, evil and many other foreboding associations. They have also been attributed with great wisdom and intelligence and are often the constant companion of wizards. In J.K. Rowling’s enchanted world, owls bridge the gap between the magical and muggle worlds, carrying messages, packages, and even Nimbus 2000s. They make it clear to muggles that when a message needs to get through, it WILL get through.
More pragmatically, farmers love having owls around. It’s not uncommon for many to erect tall owl boxes to attract these wonderful flying mouse traps. A single barn owl can consume 800 rodents a year. Many owls, including the great horned mate for life. However they spend very little time together except during breeding season when they return to their partner. A pair of mated great horned owls don’t travel very far away from each other, though, and will often have adjacent hunting territories. This amazing bird can live up to 13 years in the wild and I’m really thankful they share this farm with us.
As we move past Thanksgiving and the holiday season kicks into high gear may I suggest one of the most unique gifts this season is the gift of currants. As you all know by now we are the folks that put currants on the map in the U.S. and we are the number one source for healthy, delicious currants. We have many wonderful gift ideas and to choose from and yours will be the one gift they will all remember and love.
And if you’ve been invited to dinner, why not bring something truly unique like our CurrantC™ All Natural Black Currant syrup for all the festive dishes or our delicious decadent Dark Chocolate Black Currant Bars. And nothing brings out the creativity with holiday cocktails like a 6 pack of CurrantC™ All Natural Black Currant Nectar. Whichever you choose, you’ll be the only one giving the “Wealth of Health” with CurrantC™ Black Currants.
Cheers from the farm,