The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must – Thucydides, the Melian Dialogue
A great horned owl has taken up residence in my backyard. He calls most nights during the late summer, questioning with ghostly voice, always interrogating: “whooo-whooo?” he calls, pausing only briefly, impatient for the answer, I suppose. “Not us!” pray the rabbits, perhaps… but before long one will be disproven. A rabbit is a fairly silent creature, not prone to much vocalization, but its screams are loud and shrill and long when it is dying. The great horned owl is a stealthy shadow, with masterful nocturnal vision. He enjoys a grandiose view that my own eyes cannot see as he sits perched twenty five feet above me on the electric pole that skirts the southwestern edge of my property, almost completely concealed in darkness were it not for the dim halogen glow of the porch light. He calls to the night but answers to no-one. The owl doubtlessly hails from the thick mass of post oaks and black jacks that lie some three hundred yards away, over a pond on a grazed field he cuts across, death on the wing.
I never see him arrive but before the sun slides behind the low hills his silhouette is usually there. For all his restless complaint the owl is anything but impatient. Appearing to be doing nothing, just parked up there like a feathered gargoyle, moving only his head in that remarkable way specific to owls, talons gripped firmly into the dead wood. Nothing escapes his observation. Something suddenly grabs his attention; my ears do not pick it up but the owl’s round tufted head swivels away towards the field and he takes to the air, lifting up and out and swooping down like a diagonally-fired missile, his massive five foot tree-trunk grey wingspan making not so much as a whoosh. In the span of five seconds he is gone, as if he had never been. I sit on the porch and wonder what may have grabbed his attention. The faintest squeak of a hispid cotton rat, perhaps. Or the often raucous, growl-snuffle foraging pattern of the striped skunk. Great horned owls are one of the only predators of the notoriously and formidably equipped mustelid. Some scientists have attributed this to the owl’s poor sense of smell, but I like to think of the apex predator as so full of scarcely contained energy, violent indifference, and avian intelligence, that it pays no heed to the skunk’s potent arsenal. In the same way it would swoop down and scoop up a rattlesnake, not bothering to dodge the venomous strikes of the reptile as it sets about tearing it into bite size pieces with merciless talons and lethal hooked bill.
The owl is gone for the night. Had he not successfully found and killed and eaten the source of whatever sound that had caused his departure, I suppose he would have returned, although once he leaves he seldom returns until the next night, sometimes two or three.
There is a purring behind me now as I stare up into that starless black space atop the pole where the great horned owl just stood. I turn, swiveling my own waist and shoulders because I cannot turn like he can. It is my cat, Traveling Jones. Jones has been hanging around for years. My wife found him tearing into the trash one night, a yellow kitten smothered in orange marmalade. She bought him a can of cat food and thus he has since ever remained with us. A whining, purring, gentle animal, neutered by some previous owner and so for the most part fully domesticated. Traveling Jones is my ode to hypocrisy. He lives outside, although he dreams of coming in, which he gets to do from time to time. But for the most part he lives out there in the field, the woods, that wide open acreage of bare exposed grass. The domain of the great horned owl. Innocuous enough by day.
Jones (or “Mr. Jones,” as my son calls him) gives full credit to the old adage “scaredy-cat.” Although he catches mice from time to time, depositing their wet blood-grizzled limp forms lying like grim trophies on our door mat, he seems to have otherwise skipped the instruction manual on proper feline behavior. I have never seen him place any interest in the numerous frogs, birds, and lizards that inhabit our yard. The killdeer chicks, soft round brown and white balls of unkempt feathers that peep over the low ground in late spring, they should be oh-so-tempting to a cat. They do not gain so much as a twitch from the whiskers of Mr. Jones. And he is terrified of snakes, so much so that the extension cord I drag across the lawn to hook up my black lights always cause him to pause, rigid with fear, on one of his routine nocturnal strolls across the yard. “This wasn’t here the night before…oh, no!” The cat lifts a single paw, batting at the air in a series of rapid pats, far enough away as to be more than comical. After receiving no counterattack of whirring coils and curved fangs, he deems the object of offense harmless and steps over it, albeit cautiously, stepping nervously higher than usual.
Jones is a tamed beast, but he is far from stupid. He knows that the owl rules this kingdom of shadows. An unusually vocal cat by day who begs for food incessantly, howls to be let in daily, and seems to mumble in his weird series of mews, as if talking to himself as he goes along, he is silent on owl nights. And for good reason. To the great horned owl he is just a skunk without a stink and a stripe. A tender morsel to be dropped down upon with uncanny stealth and relative ease before being converted into proteins and then energy. The owl is purity. But he is not partial; it’s all dinner to him.
Jones thus is ever-cautious. Ever-cautious, yes, but older and slower than he was the year before. He is mostly safe atop his own comparatively meager scratch box on the porch, where an overhang shields him well from most sets of predatory eyes. But he must leave to relieve himself in the high grass at yard’s edge eventually, and this increases his vulnerability. I am fairly certain the great horned owl is aware of this. My cat’s days seem numbered. Eventually the owl will probably win out, because to nature they’re all just predators and prey.
Traveling Jones is no herbivore. In spite of his species’ centuries of domestication he has not been robbed completely of defense. He has agility, an excellent nocturnal vision of his own, needle-sharp teeth and retractable equally sharp claws. But he his no match for a fully grown great horned owl and will more than likely never know what hit him. It will be over in the span of a fraction of a moment. That age old dance of life and death, ruthless and unbiased, cold and primeval on its surface and yet so beautifully played out nightly and daily in so many unseen scenarios on a limitless scale, purity and perfection as it has been for eons. Vicious circle.
I rise from my post where I have been sitting cross-legged for the better part of an hour. The owl has been gone for a while, probably retired back to some dried out hole in the gnarled trunk in the midnight black canopy of an ancient oak in the middle of the woods to the south. Jones has gone off to the edge of the fence, still silent but eager to explore now that the death from above is out of sight and there is a lull in the previously electric air of danger. My legs are numb, tingling as the dammed off blood flow begins to recirculate. “Goodnight, Jones,” I say as I turn the knob on the back door and prepare for sleep. He gives no reply. Somewhere in the distance far away across the field, beyond the pond, and out into that thick belt of cross timbers, the faintest call of a great horned owl resonates, barely audible but there nevertheless. Somewhere…”whoo?! whoo!?”
The cat freezes. The sound does not escape his ears either. They are set atop his head and erected in such a way as to allow him much more keen aural detection than the flat, lobed ones on the sides of my head can.
Again the predator calls, this time closer, or maybe it is just our imaginations. “WHOO..WHOOO??!!” “Not me,” Jones says to himself as he bolts for the sanctuary of the porch. No, not him. At least not tonight.