Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers
Barn Owls really do like barns. And they are invaluable predators of mice, squirrels, rats and such who all do their small part to wreck a barn and its environs. And yet they are not the fierce Great-Horned-Owls of six-foot wingspans that swooped just above the ground as they once terrified us in the orchard. They are not those strange little “screech” owls, without necks that roost at night in our redwood trees and hoot without fear.
As I have mentioned here before, barn owls have the face of monkeys, hence the sobriquet monkey/monkey-faced owls. They seem globalists. In Greece, I once saw one on the island of Aegina in a crumbling Byzantine Church. At dusk in Hillsdale, Michigan I would see them on the bike path in an old pump shed.
When growing up, there were always pairs who had nests in the rafters and kept rodents out of the barn, where the sweat boxes of raisins evened out before trucking the crop into Sun-Maid. I don’t think they attacked the flicker woodpeckers. But the more the two owls flew on patrol, the rarer seemed those pests that drilled holes throughout the barn (usually covered up with tin-can lids).
Still, the barn owls were strange birds, who, like flies, seemed somehow to attach themselves to the side of the barn, where the whitewash and their dappled white/beige feathers made them invisible—and deadly to their prey below.
In the early 1960s, I often snuck up on the two as they scanned the barnyard. The barn was already well over 80 years old; its heart-redwood siding was rent with huge cracks (and it still is, 60 years later, despite constant repair). The weathered splits were just large enough for the owls to dig their claws in, and then bat-like attach themselves to the wood.
One morning my grandfather called up and said “Come down here.” We did and a majestic barn owl was limp and lifeless, hanging like a dead upside-down bat. My dad got one of the old 16-foot, three-pronged fruit ladders, climbed up and threw him down. The predator had stuck his talons so far into the cracks that he could not remove them, and literally beat himself to death, flapping and struggling to be lift off.
Given the early 1960s were the nadir of the raisin industry, no one on the farm seemed to have any money, and my dad mostly talked of saving to build a small “new” house. So I thought it strange for the family to worry over a dead owl. The five of us were living in an 800-square-foot old farmhouse dad moved onto the ranch, and drove a 1951 Ford my grandfather gave us. No matter, the death scene bothered us. My father said, “Boys, that’s something you’ll never see again.” (In fact, since then I have seen maybe five or six such barn owls, even small adolescent owls, trapped and struck dead on the barn).
I remember thinking that owls were supposed to be the smartest of birds and how could an old pro make such a silly mistake? In Athens, I saw in the National Gardens lots of little hoot owls, identical to the glaux on Athenian tetradrachms, the official state bird of the city of the “wise” Athena. From time to time, I asked my mother whether more owls would die and shouldn’t we patch the cracks, and I remember her saying, “Life is a tradeoff, good and bad, and bad and good.” Translated I think she meant the owls are good, the barn is good, the cracks are bad, and death is terrible, and life goes on, and we pray the owls never die like that again but some will, like us too—and no one has the money to put new siding on the barn. And if one did, then the owls would leave.
So I gathered that the least of our worries were cracks on a barn.
Fifty years later, I thought I had not seen in a barn owl in the barnyard in a decade. Then in my fifties, I’d assumed they were long gone and not nocturnally patrolling the same beat in the deep of night.
But they were there, all the time. I, not they, had changed—by forgetting their custodial work and worrying about another column to write or the overdue book review. Instead, life and death were right outside the window at night. So I began to notice that despite all the old holes and tunnels under the foundation, there were few rodents living in them.
Then one morning, my daughter said, “Look at that poor, poor owl.” And there one was, beige and spotted, a barn owl, stuck to barn, battered and bloody and dead, still caught on the high side of the barn. We retrieved and buried him. And I thought as I did at seven of his ancestor, how long had he been swishing around at night without notice? Why didn’t we hear him? My daughter, the empath (who sought to heal by absorbing the pains of those around her to the point of making herself sick) said, “He died as quietly as he flew.” And was he the third, fourth or was it the tenth who had ended up dead in my lifetime?