"The village is the talking bird, the owl, who calls the name of the man who is going to die."
-- Margaret Craven, "I Heard the Owl Call My Name," 1973
According to a Native American legend, the hoot of the owl can be a harbinger of death for the person who hears it. But in the expanding "village" of Northern Virginia, it is often the other way around. Here, the sound of human activity often presages the deaths of indigenous owls and other birds of prey.
"There's a continuing loss of habitat," said Kent Knowles, founder of the nonprofit Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, as he took a six-inch-tall owl out of its cage Saturday at Sky Meadows State Park. Owls, hawks and falcons simply "can't be supported in shopping malls and on highways."
More than two dozen people gathered to consider Fire, an eastern screech owl who had been hiding in the cavity of a tree--normal nesting behavior for her kind--when the tree was chopped down, shattering the humerus bone in her right wing. She faced the crowd looking like a small, molting dust mop.
"It looks like she's having a bad feather day," joked Knowles, 63, launching into one of the more than 100 talks he will give this year for the conservancy. The group, based in Falls Church, specializes in rehabilitating injured birds of prey with the hope of returning them to the wild--although that is not the fate of Fire. She will never be able to fly more than a few feet at a time, so she has become a teacher.
To a chorus of "oohs," "ahhs" and "whoas," Knowles brought out a beautiful barred owl named Dark Eyes. Next to the screech, the bigger barred owl is the most common owl in Virginia--the one people think of when they think of owls, the one that says: "Who, who, who cooks for you?" Dark Eyes was hit by a car and is blind.
Fire's ill-fated tree was in Shenandoah National Park. The bird was brought to Knowles by a resident who knew him. Although it is unclear where Dark Eyes was hit, he was brought to a veterinarian in Springfield, closer to the kinds of places where birds of prey tend to have bad encounters with humans. Humans might appreciate them more, their advocates say, if they knew how many rats and mice the raptors eat.
Knowles visited Sky Meadow last weekend at the invitation of Kathy Budnie, a park ranger who has studied raptors and often hears the cries on the park grounds of Virginia's three most common owls--the third, with the widest wingspan, is the great horned owl.
Knowles, a retired international lawyer with a degree from Harvard, has always enjoyed birds of prey. He got involved in their rehabilitation during his eight years as head of the nonprofit Wildlife Rescue League in Virginia and officially launched the conservancy in November, a year after leaving the league to devote all his time to the raptors.
"It was clear that no one was really effectively doing the job of rehabilitating birds of prey," he said. It was not only an opportunity to "offset the effects of humans," but he joked that "it's a way to give back for when I was a lawyer."
He works with vets from the National Zoo, who donate their time to perform surgery, take X-rays and write prescriptions. He and his changing roster of volunteers--as many as three dozen at a time--administer medication, feed the raptors, clean their cages and give them the exercise they need. "The ultimate goal is to get them back in the wild again," he said.
The conservancy already has seen more than 80 birds of prey this year, as many as he and his volunteers treated in all of 1998. But Knowles isn't too worried about the implications of the increasing numbers on the species' future. "It means I am getting better known," he said.
Susan Butler, a thirty-something administrative assistant in an accounting firm, came to Sky Meadows with her parents because, as a lifelong owl enthusiast and member of the Raptor Society of Metropolitan Washington, she is familiar with Knowles's work.
Kaitlyn Dykes, 7, came with her parents to learn about barred owls because, like many Loudoun and Fauquier county residents, they have barred owls nesting in their back yard. They hoped that seeing the birds in person would help to dispel some of their mystery for her.
"It was scary," she said recalling a harrowing experience at home recently, "I heard them going 'Coo, coo coo-roo!' "
Her favorite bird Saturday was Fire, "because it was cute."
The trait more often ascribed to the owl is wisdom, and Knowles, who has perhaps seen one too many birds injured by flying into closed windows, finds the stereotype amusing.
"I love 'em," he said, "but intelligence is not their strong suit."
CAPTION: Knowles's short-eared owl.
CAPTION: Kent Knowles, a bird rehabilitator, takes a wing to the head from a short-eared owl he showed off at Sky Meadows State Park on Saturday.
CAPTION: Wildlife rehabilitator Kent Knowles presents a short-eared owl from his conservancy during a wildlife program at Sky Meadows State Park. Some children at the show had their fears of the raptors put to ease, even calling them "cute."
CAPTION: An eastern screech owl, common to Virginia, perches on Knowles's hand.