Duncan Shaw: The owls of Hillsborough

July 30, 2013 

Lucy and the author, Duncan Shaw


My neighborhood in Hillsborough on the east side of town, some say the poorer part, has impressed me this spring with its richer wildlife.

One night not long ago, in an evening twilight’s cool crepuscular air, lightning bugs were popping out all over, competing for my attention with the calls of barred owls. The call of that wild bird can be both a screech and a hoot.

This was the first of several nights in May that I enjoyed these owls, and they along with the bugs made me think of Owl City – the stage name of the digital music star – and his hit song from a few years back, “Fireflies.”

One time during these walks, while standing at the base of an enormous old sycamore, my eyes following the trunk up through the darkness to the crown of beautiful leaves and branches, I saw first one owl then another take off into the night sky, and fly – that strong silent flight – to a nearby pine. As I watched I thought of a passage from Hemingway’s novel, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”:

“As they spoke, the owl flew between the trees with the softness of all silence, dropping past them, then rising, the wings beating quickly, but with no noise of feathers moving as the bird hunted.”

My daughter attends the University of Virginia, where William Faulkner was writer-in-residence in the late 1950s (post-Nobel prize) and the location of the world’s largest repository of Faulkner writings (e.g., manuscripts, galley proofs). I’m now re-reading “The Sound And The Fury” and so have been in a Faulkner frame of mind. While viewing those evening owls, I imagined what it would be like to see one of them streaming through the air at eye-level, this animal power coming right at you through the medium of dark air. Like a Faulkner sentence, a river of words, the bird comes at you relentless, full of power.

Lately, though, I haven’t seen or even heard my neighborhood owls. Owl City has become silent. And not because these silent hunters are just too busy hunting. I feel they must have moved on, to a wilder place in the wilds of Hillsborough. Some deeper, more secluded forest perhaps, like in the nearby estates of Ayr Mount or Montrose, which adjoin each other and together have hundreds of acres.

A neighbor told me she thought our owls consisted of a mating pair and two owlets. So, maybe all their activity in May was just about teaching babies to fly (with a few pointers on the fine points of hunting thrown in), and alas, now they, and the parents, have all flown the coop.

That’s OK, though. Despite a bit of sadness, I know I must accept nature’s rules. Spring babies grow stronger, more skillful and eventually are on their own – like my daughter at UVA, the oldest of four girls and the first to go away to college, and who also happens to be a May baby.

I’m grateful for nature’s gifts and my neighborhood, and will always have nice memories of Owl City, versions digital and real.

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