I stand in a narrow canyon. Last weekend in this spot I saw an exquisite male Great Horned Owl sleeping in a husky juniper tree. His mate was perched on a cliff ledge above. A petroglyph of a boxy figure with horns rubbed into the chocolate brown rocks above stands guard over the canyon. Perhaps this was the ancient-ones’ way of acknowledging that this place belonged to the horned-ones even then.
Now what I find is a ring of rocks and the blackened edge of a pallet. Smoke lingers in air. A rowdy group around a bonfire would have been here during the owls’ hunting hours. I worry that they scared the pair off their nesting grounds.
I head back down the dusty trail with my two-year-old in tow. The brown parched winter landscape is broken only by the muted green of junipers. Even the cholla that grows here like weeds are dried up. The ground is strewn with their holy bones.
I was losing the battle to keep the native four-winged salt bush and apache plume alive in my yard. Stories of endangered species – the Pecos Sunflower, the Burrowing Owls who co-habitate with prairie dogs – grace the paper daily.
Starved for good news, I was keeping tabs on this Great Horned Owl pair – one of the most adaptable birds in North America. In a time when other species are in decline due to habitat loss and human encroachment, these owls are holding steady, and in some areas increasing in numbers.
Then, we hear them: “Hooo-hoot-hoot.” The owl is far back up the canyon but its call reaches me full of power. My son draws a deep breath. We look at each other and smiles widen across our faces. “Owl!” he says with unusual clarity. We stop and listen to the hooting. The distant mountains glow under a celestial blue and pink aura as the sunsets.
We drive home in the twilight giddy knowing that the owl pair is settling in despite human disturbance and drought. They will soon have a nest full of downy babies.