A New Year’s Resolution


Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl/Photo by Steve Gifford

By Alyssa Nyberg

My kids and I look at dead things. It’s true. They say you are supposed to “stop and smell the roses,” and we do that in the summertime. But there aren’t many roses in winter. So, we look at dead things.

Today I was holding a limp and lifeless Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) in the palms of my hands. Likely it was hit by a car as it flew in the twilight of morning. Just yesterday I had been jogging down this same road and was startled by the silent shadow of a bird with long slow wingbeats that flew back and forth across the road. I recognized it as a Short-eared Owl. I never heard a sound, even though it flew just 20 feet or so in front of me. Absolutely silent. Absolutely incredible.

My children looked shyly over my shoulder at the owl. Death can be a hard concept to feel comfortable with. Then ever so slowly, the desire to look, touch, hold and discuss overcame them.

Back in January of 2012, I had written a Nature Notes column about Short-eared Owls. At that time, I had never been so close to one and certainly had never held one in my hands. My children and I could see all the features that I had written about in that article.

A body covered in white, brown and buff colored feathers. Stiff bristles on the leading edge of each wing which allows it to fly without a sound. A wingspan of 34 inches that carried the owl from the Arctic tundra to our Newton County each winter. Black feathers on the underside of the wing tips. Legs covered in feathers to protect it from the extreme colds of the tundra and winters in Indiana. Four jet black, razor sharp talons ready to latch on to the unsuspecting mouse or vole. Yellow eyes surrounded by a triangle of black feathers. Yes, all the features were present and accounted for, just as I had researched two years ago.

But what I wasn’t expecting – and what wasn’t in the books – was that the owl’s long, slender lightweight body was as soft as silk. The feathers on the face were almost like the arms of a snowflake and we could see each individual hair. The talons were so shiny we could see the sunlight reflecting in them. I also hadn’t expected the sense of awe that came along with being so close to and actually holding something that was completely and utterly wild.

“Isn’t it perfect?” I whispered to my children. “Yes, except for one thing,” replied my son. “It’s dead.”  Good point. This state endangered bird was indeed dead.

When we were finished admiring the Short-eared Owl, we laid it right back where we had found it. It would either be eaten by another animal, or return to dust. Even dead, it was still a part of the prairie ecosystem.

Sadly, our family has seen many prairie species along our Newton County roadsides. We have been able to respectfully observe the long whiskers on the muzzle of the coyote, the shiny patterned scales of snakes, the fragile nothingness of a butterfly, the delicate tininess of a hummingbird. We have touched all these things and more.

Today we experienced the Short-eared Owl in a way that none of us will forget. It is an experience that I hope will shape my children and give them a deeper respect for creatures as they grow into adults, responsible for the well-being of our natural world.

This 2015, may we resolve to look at things more closely, giving ourselves a deeper appreciation for the world around us. At Kankakee Sands, there are a wide variety of prairie and savanna loving plants, animals, insects and birds that we can observe and begin to understand the intricate details which make the species unique. With over 600 plants, 240 birds, 50 animals and countless insects, you can rest assured that you won’t just have to look at dead things while visiting Kankakee Sands. In fact, we even have roses that you can stop and smell in the summertime.

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.


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