During high school homecoming elections, teens cast their vote for the comely young man and woman who will reign over the big game in rhinestone crowns and fake-fur robes. In the Cascades Raptor Center’s adopt-a-bird program, wildlife lovers from around the world may donate money to sponsor a favorite raptor for a year, and the birds with the most sponsors become, in a sense, our king and queen. Homecoming kings and queens acknowledge their loyal constituency with a royal wave from the parade float. We at the raptor center print patrons’ names on four-by-four-inch laminated cards to hang outside the raptors’ enclosure at our forested compound in Eugene, Oregon.
Last April, as I knelt in the grass at the center to wipe dust from the adoption cards on various enclosures, I noticed something surprising. Our two tiny burrowing owls — shy, plain birds often overlooked even when aboveground — boasted more sponsors than any of our sixty-three resident raptors.
“Twenty adoptions?” I said aloud. The round brown owls stood in a patch of sunlight, yellow eyes watchful and heads swiveling to gaze at the rows of cards that almost obscured them from sight. I anticipate this level of public regard for our magnificent bald eagles with their permanently injured wings, or for our one-eyed gyrfalcon who presides grandly and cacophonously over the center. But burrowing owls?
The two eight-inch birds, Linnaeus and Speo, looked like shy and nerdy candidates blinking in bewilderment at finding themselves unexpectedly in the spotlight. I struggled to comprehend the reason for their popularity. Then, it struck me.
A few years back, Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen took an editor’s advice and penned a novel for middle school readers. Hoot follows the antics of a trio of kids who fight the development of a vacant lot in South Florida in order save a colony of burrowing owls. It marked a departure from Hiaasen’s usual environmental mysteries for adults, but teachers, children, New Line Cinema, and Walden Media snapped up the story immediately. Now, thanks to the book and the film it inspired, an entire generation can tell you that burrowing owls are shy, have lopsided ears, and nest in abandoned prairie dog burrows. The biggest threats to their population are farmers who eradicate prairie dogs and developers who destroy underground owl colonies. Hiaasen inspires us to root for burrowing owls from the moment one pokes its inquisitive head above ground seemingly destined for bulldozing. In the context of a battle to preserve the environment and fight suburban sprawl, we’re treated to a puckish tale of bumbling patrol officers, fierce child activists, and captivating eight-ounce protagonists.
I suspect the results of this tale are tangible at wildlife centers across the country. And I hope others craft stories about the northern goshawk, the peregrine falcon, and the tiny American kestrel so that each of our raptors — no matter how diminutive and unassuming — can know what it feels like to be royalty.