By Crystal Doyle, New York
A local raptor expert and friend, David, has been catching, banding, and releasing raptors near Rochester, New York, for twenty-five years. He is especially interested in aiding the tracking and research on snowy owls—stunningly beautiful white owls with bright yellow eyes and bristly feather-covered beaks.
Snowy owls are one of the heaviest and largest owls in North America. Although they make their home and breeding grounds in the Arctic, younger snowy owls migrate south to Canada and the northern United States. It is thought that their numbers are dwindling due to changes in the Arctic climate.
One frigid winter day, David invited me to come along to check the condition of some snowy owls thirty miles south of Rochester. Snowy owls prefer wide-open spaces like farm fields where they can easily spy small mammals or birds they depend upon for food. They sometimes perch on top of telephone poles but can be difficult to spot while sitting, unmoving, next to white clumps of snow and corn stubble.
On an Adventure
The air was below freezing—twelve degrees Fahrenheit or minus eleven Celsius. Cold seeped through my thick boots and gloves, but the sun shone brightly as we drove south. After about twenty-five minutes, David spotted an owl.
David pulled his white truck into the driveway of a nearby farmhouse and knocked on the door. A middle-aged woman with a line of children behind her opened the door. David explained what he was going to be doing with the snowy owl and that he had a permit.
Pigeons swooped through upper windows of the farm’s big barn while we talked. One of the boys said, “Oh yes, we see a lot of that owl. He can have all the pigeons he wants!” They all chuckled at the boy’s comment.
After we left the farmhouse, David set a humane owl trap, which is a device designed to capture an owl without causing harm or stress to the bird. He gave me instructions: “Don’t ask questions, and don’t get in the way.” I knew I must stay quiet and small.
This was my first time coming along to catch a raptor, and I was thrilled. I’ve always been keenly interested in raptors, especially owls, and hope in the future (after a seven-year training period) to help catch and release raptors for research.
The experience today would turn out to be one of the highlights of my life.
Three Snowy Owls
Our first snowy owl of the day flew right to the trap in less than five minutes. David nicknamed him “Easy.”
We weighed and measured Easy, as David does with each owl. Snowy females are slightly larger, and males are usually whiter. All three owls we caught this day were males, remarkably white and pristine looking.
I quietly assisted as David weighed Easy, then wiggled a couple feathers free to send to a lab for DNA testing and to check for mercury and other pollutants. We measured and photographed the owl’s wings and tail so researchers could compare data. We fastened a band to one leg and recorded the band’s number in a logbook.
Then David made a surprising offer. He asked if I would like to hold the first owl we caught and be the one to release it!
I carefully put my hand around the owl’s legs, as instructed. The huge claws protruded, but the owl was calm. When being held in this manner, owls are docile. It amazed me when the owl didn’t try to escape or peck at me. Easy stayed perfectly still, exuding a sense of dignity and serene beauty.
While firmly but gently grasping the large furry legs, I sang HU softly and talked reassuringly to Easy. “We won’t hurt you,” I said. I released him, and he flapped off into the cerulean sky.
As the afternoon lengthened, we caught and banded a second owl, and I released him too. Feeling slightly braver, I took a minute to caress the owl’s glistening white chest feathers—as soft as a bunny’s fur. I said to the second one, “You are Soul. You are a child of God. You are eternal. Soul exists because God loves It.” David remarked on how calm the owls became with me.
Waiting for Houdini
The sun was setting over the hills as we drove to the last spot for the day. David was searching for a particular owl he had nicknamed Houdini. David had tried to capture this owl twice before, and both times Houdini had escaped without being banded. It was almost completely dark when David whispered, “There he is!”
He parked in a spot with fields and woods on either side and a farm in the distance. Then he got out and set a trap. We sat in the truck, straining to see through binoculars. David turned off the engine, and the temperature dropped even more.
I thought about how this creature lives in a barren, inhospitable land. A white phantom of the night, the snowy owl is perfectly at home in the harsh Arctic environment. I felt suddenly sad about the changes coming to its natural habitat but hopeful that the snowies would adapt and survive.
We waited an hour for Houdini to appear. Finally, and somewhat humorously, he hopped instead of gracefully flying to the trap. We got him! He was quite annoyed that we’d captured him and snapped his beak several times with a loud clacking sound.
We completed all the measurements and banding. When it was time to return Houdini to the sky, David let me release him.
Houdini was calm as I held him. I sang HU and whispered to him as I had with the other owls. Then I asked, “Are you ready to go now?” I opened my heart and mind and listened for his answer. He turned to me and let out a single whistle.
Everything else seemed to fall away until just this incredible creature and I seemed to exist. Not only did I see Houdini as Soul, but he saw me as Soul. Moved by this inner communication, tears streamed down my face.
Seconds later, I lifted Houdini in my hands and gave the bird a little push up into the air. He opened his white wings into a twenty-eight-inch span and silently flew away into the night.
Later, while contemplating on my day with the snowy owls, I realized that the Mᴀʜᴀɴᴛᴀ, my spiritual guide in Eᴄᴋᴀɴᴋᴀʀ, quietly whispers the truths to me that I’d been expressing to the owls before setting them free: You are Soul, an eternal being. You have spiritual freedom.
I have only to remember to listen, as I sing HU daily and practice the spiritual exercises taught in Eᴄᴋᴀɴᴋᴀʀ, to experience my own flight into freedom. It is a freedom of greater happiness, farther vision, and deeper realization of myself as a limitless being of Light and Sound.
I am thankful to have been given the gift of seeing the snowy owls not only as birds, but also as spiritual beings capable of intelligent awareness. I was perhaps able to give them an experience of interspecies communication, an awareness of the eternal nature of Soul, and love. My heart will always remember the soft touch of snowy wings.
—Photos and video by Crystal Doyle