If you want a lesson in how little you notice about the world, I recommend an hour watching parent long-eared owls gather food for their chicks.
Recently I saw the adults detect, pinpoint, catch and return to their brood with five voles in one 20-minute period. Seeing the feat, you could assume that the place was hooching with vole flesh. Not at all. I walked through that vegetation where they were hunting. It was a dense, entangled, knee-high world of heather, bilberry and grass thickets. Had I spent a month on my hands and knees, I may conceivably have found some old sign of where voles had once camped, but I doubt I’d ever have clapped eyes on the mammals themselves.
The owls do it by having laser-like acuity of hearing and a flight mode softer than the warm breeze. But it is watching them watch that I find most incredible. Long-eared owls have flame-coloured eyes on a neck that can rotate through 270 degrees. The mechanism swivels sweetly like a telescope on its mount. Yet none of this conveys the intensity of the sight beam, the way the bird, perched on a wall, scans and probes the realm of light photons, recoils the head to flame-throw its vision deeper into a spot.
If an organism could physically manipulate the world by sight, owls would evolve it first. You realise that once the search image has been fixed – once those twitching vole whiskers are tied together, so to speak – the capture is mere formality. Clamping eight razor talons into vole fur is just dotting the owl’s contractual Is.
As we come out of lockdown, environmentalists are falling over themselves to tell one another and anyone who’ll listen how good nature is for us. I want to rebel and to ask, paraphrasing President Kennedy, not what nature can do for us, but what the hell we can do for nature? If I must add to the eco-chorus on wildlife’s instrumental purposes for us, I’d say this: owls help me see that I see so little, that we are party to something vaster than we know. Owls make the world richer, wider and deeper for us all.
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