The Christmas Owl

A barred owl, christened “Noel,” that I hit driving home on Christmas eve.

This year I got the most unusual Christmas present of my life. Coming home late at night after working Christmas Eve at the hospital, a barred owl flew right in front of my car. Driving, lost in my own thoughts, I remember screaming when it stuck the passenger side bumper. On the dark road, only a minute from my house, I turned my car around to find out what had become of him.

I wasn’t even sure it was an owl, though that was my first thought. What else, besides maybe Santa, would be flying around at night?

I found him crumpled and still by the side of the road. Alive or barely, he was beautiful. Convinced he was dead or dying, I tried to prepare myself for what I needed to do. I reached down for him, feeling around on his body. His chest rose and fell under the deep fluff of his feathers. The nurse in me kicked in, and I knew whether or not he lived through the night, I would not let him die alone and cold on a roadside.

I got a cardboard box out of my car that I luckily had, and lined it with a few of my reusable grocery bags. I gently laid the owl down inside the box, closed the lid, and put the box next to me on the passenger seat of the car.

Warm and dark and confined, I remembered that’s what the wildlife rescuers had told me to do with injured animals in the past. So I turned on the seat warmer and proceeded to head home, keeping one hand inside the box on his chest the whole way. I hoped somehow to keep the owl alive through sheer contact, and for him to know somehow a fellow creature cared and was willing him to survive.

Once home, I brought the box into a small  back bathroom. The owl had been quiet on the short drive to the house, but now inside I began to hear him stir. Bags rustled around, wings tried to flap, and claws scratched at the cardboard.

Heart racing, relieved he might be coming around, I didn’t quite know what to do next. I’d been preparing myself for possibly having to end his suffering, or at least sit with him while he died. I hadn’t thought much about what I would do if he lived. He was a raptor after all, a bird of prey with a sharp beak and claws. He could hurt me very badly, injured and afraid, thinking he was fighting for his life.

Still, I had to know how he was doing. I got my heavy leather woodstove gloves and put them on, preparing to open the box. Inside, he’d gotten a bit tangled in the cloth shopping bag handles. But he was lying there, quiet and alert, looking me right in the eyes.

I was mesmerized. By his huge black pupils, and by the magnificence of the bird before me. He was so beautiful, elegant, and surprisingly intact, one of the mysterious denizens of the forest before me. That’s when the strangeness of it really struck me, that I had a live owl (at least for now) in my bathroom on Christmas Eve. I didn’t think many other people could probably have ever said the same thing.

Before, if he’d died as I was expecting, it would have been a sad and miserable experience for me. But instead, magically, miraculously, I believed in that moment he was going to live.

I reached in and untangled his legs and wings. He didn’t fight or peck at me. He didn’t act terrified or hurt, though I’m sure he had at least a nasty headache. I picked him up, savoring the soft feel of his feathers, the sight of his wings and feathered feet, so different from other birds I’d seen.

He watched me the entire time, eye to eye.

I stood him on the toilet seat and tried to check his neurological status (reactions, vision, things like that). I didn’t know if owls would have the same responses as people, but I had to try. He was steady while standing, didn’t tip over and seemed to be able to see light and follow motion. His pupils appeared wide open, however, and I didn’t know if that was normal in the bright light or might indicate a problem (like shock or a concussion).

So I sat with him and watched. Curled up next to a toilet on Christmas Eve, marveling at the experience, I watched to see how the owl progressed. If he took a turn for the worse, at least I would be with him.

After about an hour, I had a strong feeling he would live. He’d begun to flap around in the bathroom, flying up and perching on the towel bar and the curtain rod. He even landed on my shoulder once. I called the emergency vet that was 20 minutes away to see what they thought. They said if he was flying and perching, those were good signs. So at 1 am, I called the local wildlife rescue group I’d brought animals to in the past and told them about my owl.

At 2 am I drove with him – back in a cat carrier now-to the rescuer’s house 45 minutes away. He’d gone back into confinement without a fuss, and sat quietly in the car once again, this time awake and watching me through the wire top.

I was feeling tired, my adrenaline rush finally beginning to wear off, when I reached Trish, the rescuer’s, house. She examined the owl, who we dubbed “Noel” right then, not knowing whether he was a boy or a girl. Nothing felt broken to her, there were no cuts or wounds or obvious damage. He was still awake and alert and moving. The only thing that concerned her was his right eye seemed to be not working as well, blinking and moving differently from the left.

Owls can’t see to the side without turning their heads, their eyes can’t move independently from their skulls like ours. Trish told me most likely he’d been hunting something across the road, his vision fixed and focused, and hadn’t even seen me coming.

They are tough creatures, though, she told me, tougher than we would ever imagine.

Together we medicated him, me holding him against my chest while Trish gave him an anti-inflammatory. Then she wrapped him in towel, took him inside and told me i could check in on him. I was both sad and relieved. He was safe, alive, going to receive medical care from people who knew how best to treat him. I drove back home in a bit of daze, getting sleepier and sleepier as I went, praying I didn’t run into anything else so late at night, and crashed into bed when I finally got there.

Since our Christmas Eve encounter, I’ve checked on Noel a few times. He’s still recovering, hanging out with the other owls Trish has. She is still not sure about the vision in his right eye, he may have lost it in the collision, or it may have been poor or absent to begin with. I take comfort, however, knowing that he is good hands.

But I don’t know how Noel’s story will end yet. If he recovers enough to be released back into the wild, I will be invited to go along, a thought that sounds exciting and wonderful, but also concerns me that he might now be handicapped by partial blindness.

If releasing him is not an option, the wildlife group will evaluate him for an educational bird, one that lives in captivity and is brought to shows and events to educate people about owls and other birds of prey. Part of me likes that idea much better, thinking he would have a safe home (in human terms, at least), and another part knows that is probably not what Noel would choose, if he could.

Only time will tell how his story turns out. But I will keep on checking.

People have asked me since if I wasn’t afraid, handling a bird like that, bringing it into my car and my house, being so close to one. But it never occurred to me to be afraid at all, not once. I was only fascinated, curious, excited, hopeful. And grateful, in the end, that he had not died. I felt privileged to have had such an experience, and still do, a true Christmas gift I will remember for the rest of my life.