A Child’s Garden of Animals: Barnicide

Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers

John Gould Wikipedia Commons

Part One

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).

Tetradrachm Athens 480-420BC
Museum of Fine Arts Lyon Wikipedia Commons

 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? 

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32 thoughts on “A Child’s Garden of Animals: Barnicide

  1. Nice piece. Native Californian who escaped to SC in 2014. Coopers Hawks seem to most evident in our home, although we hear Barred Owls at night sometimes. Been to every CA county at some point.
    My wife, retired nurse practitioner and PhD Egyptologist, heard some of your guest lectures at UCB when she came down from B.C. to get the PhD; in the earlier 80’s.
    Also have escaped social media sites.

  2. Dear Professor Hanson,
    I look forward to all that you write and speak of.
    Thank you so much for all the wonderful stories, anecdotes and informed wisdom.
    Best regards, Kenneth Riehl
    Saint Augustine Florida

  3. Victor – I have four young sons. My oldest 18 and my youngest 12. They have obvious similarities but are all unique in different ways. They have different skills that they are mastering like we all do. You have a truly unique skill that is so appreciated . To intelligently and articulately tell a story and/or to make a point. I have been listening to and reading your articles for years now. I love Tucker but make it a point for the whole family to come down when you are on. At dinner, your stories and common sense historical/political points are echoed. My children are not taught in school but by myself and my wife. Thank you for your influence on our lives. I see the future in my sons – especially as they debate and/or be a positive influence on their friends. The future is bright… …thank you…

  4. Professor you write so well. You have a very descriptive prose and a knack for incisive expression . You should try your hand at writing novels . You would be very good in creating America themed stories in the vein of Steinbeck and Faulkner . As Faulkner and Foote wrote of Mississippi you could write of the agricultural culture of Northern California . I enjoy reading a listening to your wisdom . Please continue to be a voice of sanity in America

  5. A beautiful ittle story. Thank you for the pause and reflection while the world and our country slam from one extreme to the other.

  6. Mr. Hanson, your authorship and style takes on an elevated status when you recount these tales. I am, of course, a fan and consumer of your work and I am always enthralled, but I must impart to you that your autobiographical essays bring about vivid and immersive mental imagery, and your written words flow with an ease and brevity that rises even above your other work. Perhaps just as the owls rise, silently, into the cracks in your ancient barn. My compliments, sir, I look forward to more.

  7. That was an interesting article. Having spent most of my life in the city, I don’t have the same appreciation for nature that you do Dr. Hanson. But reading about your childhood on the farm and the day-to-day trade offs between life and death is opening my eyes to another much different world.

    Owls are fascinating creatures. Did they not symbolize strength, power, and wisdom to the ancient Athenians?

    I remember one night returning home from work. Our street was divided by a grass median which was lined by rows of large trees. Kids would often play there and the trees provided shade during the hot summer months. While about to make a u-turn I noticed what appeared to be someone standing next to a car. We stared at each other for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time. I could only see the person’s stout yellowish head which stood out in the inky darkness. I remember thinking: is that a new neighbor or possibly a car prowler I’ve interrupted? As I got closer the “head” suddenly spread its wings and flew away. It took me a moment to realize what I had just seen. I then chuckled to myself and thought: there is much more to my urban environment than I know.

  8. We lived for several years just outside Buckeye, Arizona, then a small town about 20 miles west of Phoenix. Our home was built in 1936 by the man who owned thousands of agricultural acres surrounding the house. He also built a house for his overseer behind the main house. When we bought the house, the overseer’s house had a three-foot square opening in the attic facing the back of the main house. We were there several years before I found out there was a white, or mostly white, owl living in that attic. I found out when I walked out into the back yard just after dusk and had a large, white owl missile swoosh by my head. It startled me, to say the least. I expect I was a bit larger than the owl’s normal prey, so wondered what caused him to give me a fly by.

  9. You can likely expect a visit from PETA soon to scourge you properly for not filling those cracks!

  10. Reminds me of visits to friend’s farm in Iowa.

    Farms need to be family owned and tended. They are the soul of the country. Bill Gates and corporate farms are degenerate. Farms should be homesteads not factories. Investors fundamentally lack soul.

    I guess we have a country that lacks soul.

  11. As always sir, a pleasure to read the thoughts you choose to share.

    Kind Regards,

    Brown Beezer

  12. As ever, I always gain reading Dr. Hanson’s words. In this case, I had just drafted a poem about the death of a small bird by my front door this morning. And then Dr. Hanson’s account of the death of barn owls. “He died as quietly as he flew.”

  13. Dr. Hanson, My father (1900 – 1977) emigrated from the village of Bouf (“Owl” for the many owls in the area) near Thessaloniki in northern Greece. In 1903 the Christian village was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks. Because of what Jesus has done for us you will see your daughter again. I am grateful for your courageous work. Michigan Grandma.

  14. Dear Dr. Hanson,
    Mankind like many animals was equipped with two eyes for depth, two ears for direction of sound, two arms, hands and legs to manipulate things and give us balance to move around.
    Your writings in this polarised era give us perspective with unparalleled knowledge and quality that provide similar balance to the mind. Historical perspective is exactly what we need to make sense of an absent free press and the sensorship of the Social media.
    Thank you for that.

  15. I would like to hear your comments about Dr. Kent Wessinger’s latest book about millennials.
    I am a 75-year-old conservative with five children and seven grandchildren. Dr. Wessinger‘s book gave me a completely new frame of reference about the future of America and what my children and grandchildren or thanking about their world and the America which they will inherit. This is a book that every grandparent should readIt is based on what they are thinking not what other people in our generation think about them.

  16. I thoroughly enjoyed “Barnicide”, a most interesting and touching story for an old man who does not like death in any creature, although it is inevitable. I appreciate all your writings. Thank you.

  17. According to Cambridge applied mathematicians Justin Jaworski and Nigel Peake in their search for creating quieter aircraft, they found that “owl wings are especially quiet in part because their trailing-edge feathers are flexible and porous, allowing some air through.”
    The feathers of the wings, body, and tail of owls tend to be wider and rounder than those of other birds and the wing feathers have a soft, velvety covering of tiny feathers that muffle the sound of the air passing over the wing, resulting in almost totally silent flight.
    I remember walking at night along a quiet sidewalk and being startled by a large owl passing by me without a sound. These are indeed incredible birds.
    I find it odd that owls are mentioned at various points though out the Bible and are considered signs of desolation and loneliness. Perhaps because they fly so noiselessly that they seem like ghostly apparitions. But I think owls are cool. Maybe because I appreciate a touch of darkness and alienation in our lives that I find owls compelling creatures.
    Anyway, thank you so much for your owl story.

  18. Life is sad, because it ends, slowly, or accidentally. But heaven is real, and waiting. So life isn’t sad after all.

  19. Good story. I had never heard this about Barn Owls. I’ve seen a few here and there but don’t live on a place with a barn and run across them rarely. Owls are very interesting birds and not surprisingly have an outsized place in mythology. I enjoy your writings about farm life.

  20. I’ve been spending a lot of time deleting, unsubscribing, unfollowing, removing social media accounts. Each action has improved my days. Cancelling the “cancellers”. However, I will always enjoy your writing, both scholarly and reflective. Thank you for sharing your humanity and insight. Fellow bird and nature lover.

  21. Professor:

    I grew up on a farm in southern Idaho. We didn’t have a barn so owls were not a part of my early life but feral cats were plentiful so the mice population was well under control. I went to San Diego courtesy of the Navy (Naval Aviator) and after retiring had a townhouse in northern San Diego County, Rancho Bernardo. My patio was adjacent to the community pool and there were very large palm trees around it. I would sit on my patio at night and almost every evening a very large white owl would almost silently swoosh in and sit in the palm almost above me. The wing span was quite large – perhaps six feet or so. No flapping sound just a whisper of swoosh. Such a magnificent creature. Beautiful in so many ways.

    I read almost everything you publish and like many look forward to you commentary on Fox.


    Dan Hartley
    CDR USN Ret

  22. Lsst summer I was treated to about a week of what I believe must have been a mating frenzy of Barred Owls hooting wildly all evening long for several nights. They were camped in the trees behind my house and it was several evenings of surprise and joy just to sit and listen to them hooting and screeching back and forth to each other for hours. And then they were still, and gone. I’m blessed to still have a good stand of hawks and owls in my woods, but never so many as that one wonderful asemblage.

  23. Strong winds earlier this year toppled some trees at night in my backyard. As I cleared them, I found the remains of one of our two barn owls who lived in a palm tree. [Sigh] As John F. Kennedy once said: “Life is unfair”. (Press conference held on March 21, 1962).

  24. In my youth Victor, for several seasons I worked a vineyard that grew sultana grapes. The farmer had a side business trucking grape waste from the local winery for stock feed. He would rouse me from sleep in my tent at 1am or 2am and we would drive to the processing plant 10miles out of town and pick up a truckload of grape husks. We drove through the night into dim regions – obviously the farmer knew every inch of the land, for often I had no idea where we were!
    We would stop in the middle of a pitch dark field after driving through a series of gates – my job was to leap down from the truck and open and shut the gates when needed. Jack would operate the tip and would tip the grapes in the field. Before the tip offloaded the feed the cows would be milling around in the dark. They would come at me, nestling their cold wet nostrils on my bare arms and making me start – they would moan pleasurably and Jack would drive the truck forward as the grapes spilled from the tip to spread the feed across the field.
    To say the experience was surreal seems an understatement. I would be surrounded by excited cows and would rush to climb up in the cab as we prepared to leave – “Come on!” Jack would shout “There’re more coming!” And we would drive off into the night. I kept my own tally of the hours I worked and old Jack never disputed a tally. I always understated the irregular hours I worked.

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