The Christmas Owl, Part 2: Free at Last

Noel, the barred owl,  on Christmas Eve.
One week ago today Noel, the beautiful barred owl I hit coming home from work on Christmas Eve, returned to the wild. After a month spent with Trish, a wildlife rehabilitator with North Country Wild Care, she felt he was ready. I got a message from her late Saturday afternoon, asking if I was home for her to come by, letting me know this would be the day.

The decreased vision in his right eye was no longer enough to impair Noel. He’d been “practicing” hunting at another rehabber’s house (not something she filled in too many details on). He was eating well and flying well, and the weather that day had turned fine. It was time.

But I wasn’t sure I was ready.

Although I was delighted he’d recovered enough to be released and very excited to see him again, I worried, of course. About his vision, about him going back out into the cold of winter after spending so much time in civilization, about the road where I hit him. An endless list of things that could happen to him rolled through my mind.

I’d saved his life, and now, as the Buddhists believe, I realized I felt responsible for it.

The thought of Noel spending his life as an educational bird instead had been very tempting. There are so many human inventions that affect and/or end the lives of animals, and it troubles me deeply and frequently. Hitting Noel brought that knowledge home to me again. Between roadways and cars, urban sprawl, floating islands of garbage in the ocean, and the effects of climate change, because of people the other creatures on the planet have a lot to contend with.

And I had made a connection with this particular one, with this wild, beautiful, mysterious owl, a bird surrounded by lore and legend. He had flown into my life out of nowhere on Christmas Eve, bringing a magical and moving experience with him. Now, he was about to fly out of it.

His miraculous survival of the collision and eventual recovery was only part of the magic for me. The other part was, that my mother had loved owls dearly. She’d also passed away at Christmas time, a holiday she loved. I still have a few things of hers –coffee mugs, a bell, Christmas ornaments– with the image of an owl on them. And I have gathered up many of my own owl artifacts since, because of her.

All my life, any time I have touched any of these things I think of my mother. They help me feel connected to her, like she is still close by, though more than twenty years have passed since she died.

Noel seemed to be not just an owl, a beautiful bird in his own right. To me, and to many of my friends who I told his story to, he was also a messenger. From my mother, and from the natural world I love and try so hard to live with in harmony. I am still trying to decipher all of what I think that message is. But part of it, I believe, is that I am watched over, and loved in return. That what I give comes back to me.

And now, despite my fears and worries, my secret hope for him to live a life of relative safety as an educational bird, it was my turn to let go. And I had to help release Noel, let him return to the wild world I love where he came from. Let both him, and my mother’s spirit he embodied, once again fly free.

I’d asked about releasing him on my farm, in one of the back fields. I thought it would be easier, safer, for all of us. And secretly I relished the thought of releasing him there. Trish said doing so might bring him too close to another barred owl’s territory, however. They have a natural range 1 ½-2 miles, and though I’d hit Noel less than a mile from my house, it could be at the edge of or even outside his range.

So as dusk approached, Trish and I drove together to the spot where I hit Noel. Her mother, Dot, had come along, which she does for many of the owl releases. They had set another barred owl free earlier that evening, Noel’s roommate during his rehabilitation.

Now it was his turn. Our turn.

We pulled off on to the side of the road and walked uphill to the edge of the woods, Trish carrying Noel in a cardboard box carrier. I had flashbacks to the night I hit him, and looked anxiously over my shoulder for any oncoming cars. I’d asked Trish if I could make a video of the release, and she agreed. It helped take my mind off my worries, and might help North Country Wild Care, too, to promote the work that they do.

The light was fading quickly as Trish brought Noel out of his carrier. My heart leapt to see him there on her arm, sitting quietly. She spoke for a few minutes about his recovery, how he’d done, what to expect. I reached out to touch him, to pet him goodbye as I’d once pet him hello when he awoke from unconsciousness after the accident, as I’d once touched him to search for signs of life.

Miraculously, he let me. I marveled again at the softness of his feathers, the sharpness of his claws and beak, the huge black marbles of his eyes still visible in the twilight. Most of all I marveled that I was touching him, and that he seemed as unafraid of me as I was of him.

And then, with a shake of Trish’s arm, he was off, gone, flying up into a nearby tree.

He sat there for while, seemingly watching us as we talked further, looking at us as we looked up at him. Then he flew up to higher branch, maybe to get a better view or his bearings. It was mating season for barred owls, Trish said. He may even have a mate out there waiting for him.

Night had almost arrived and we still had to walk back down the steep hill. We turned to get going back to the car, me still filming my video and asking questions. I turned to look back at Noel. At that moment, he spread his wings, lifted up off the branch and flew out into the darkness, high up over the road and in the same direction he’d been headed the night I hit him, a shadow merging into other shadows.

Trish and Dot saw him fly off, too. A swamp lay not far beyond the woods, I knew. I asked Trish if he could be headed there. Yes, owls love swamps, she said, it could be his home or where his mate waited.

I cried a little when I watched Noel fly away. I wished him well, a good journey, hoping he would never go near the road again. I felt both happy and sad letting him go, thinking of how we’d met, how he’d lived even though I’d thought he probably wouldn’t. And I thought of my mother, and of how I wasn’t sure exactly what became of us after we died. But I knew that I did believe something of our souls lives on, animal and human, the energy existing in one form or another, still present and available to touch the living.

And I knew even if it was the same, both happy and sad, I hoped one day to experience something so special again.

I have been watching for Noel ever since his release. Along the road where I hit him, yes. But mostly now when I walk in the fields I think of him, hoping he is bedded down for the day in warm tree trunk somewhere out in the woods. Or around dusk I will stand outside and listen for him, for the barred owl call of “who-cooks-for-you.”

I feel more connected to the night now, less alone in it. I feel like I even see it through different eyes.

I like knowing Noel is out there flying through the forest, awake and alert in the darkness, although I wouldn’t want to be the mouse or rabbit that crosses his path. It is where he should be, in his element, living his natural life, free again in this world we all share. I touched a magical, very wild part of it, and it touched me. And like the memories of my mother and my love of nature, it is all a part of me now, too, to fly with me forever.