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Winter reflection: A barn owl, fallen from the skies

The white bird lies on newspaper in the passageway, black-eyed, breathtakingly beautiful, utterly unmarked. 

I am writing when the email pings in. My outdated laptop with its blurred keys rests on a scarred elm desk; the mantel clock I bought a quarter of a century ago, as a student, gently ticks; a pock-marked beam in my eyeline is scratched with compass-drawn daisy wheels to protect against evil, drawn who knows how many generations ago. I’ve been writing for hours, I realise now; a winter’s night presses black against the chill windowpanes.

The email is from my neighbour, Richard. “Sad news,” it begins. “I picked up a dead barn owl on the road… I am assuming it had been hit by a car, although there was no obvious external injury. If you want to take a look at the beautiful creature, I have it here. We can ill afford to lose them!”

I find my torch and a woolly hat and knock on Richard and Sue’s back door. The white owl lies on newspaper in the passageway, black-eyed, breathtakingly beautiful, utterly unmarked; but as I pick it up its head lolls loosely and road grit falls from its feathers, pattering down. I gently stretch out one archangel wing and its tendons tighten to retract it. For an awful moment I believe it is still alive, and suffering.

Its body is so small inside its deep, soft down; the whole bird is so impossibly light. Held aloft on a palm, wings out and bright eyes open, it could be hunting for mice amid my neighbours’ wellies and outdoor shoes; barnies fly low and slow in a practice called “quartering”, turning the satellite dishes of their faces this way and that. They hang in the air, seemingly motionless, as this one does on my hand.

Barn owls die in great numbers at this time of year, many from starvation: in winter mice and voles are less active above ground, and therefore harder to catch. Inexperienced juveniles are at greatest risk, both of starvation and from traffic: 3,000 to 5,000 barn owls die annually on Britain’s roads from a population of only around 4,000 adult pairs (who produce around 12,000 young per year). This one – a male, I think – feels well fed, but does look young. One leg bears a metal ring, and Richard has already sent in a report to the British Trust for Ornithology. A few days later we’ll hear that he was from a brood hatched at a nearby farm last spring; he was only eight months old.

Before I leave I let Richard and Sue know about the conservation organisations that might want the corpse for post-mortem. I also say that should it not be required, I would like to take it; I have a growing collection of animal bones and a trusted method of recovering a clean skeleton. My most recent addition is the skull of a weasel: tiny, oddly long (for snaking through tunnels) and armed with ferocious teeth. I’ve never found anything odd about being interested in dead animals – or death in general, including my own – though I am reminded, each time I mention it on social media, that many other people are prone to squeamishness, superstition or fear.

My mother died 13 years ago, as a result of a road accident. When I reached the ICU, 200 miles away, she was still alive – though only just. Her body was unmarked, the damage all internal, yet there was no mistaking how broken she was. She died once all six of her brood had made it to the hospital. Unlike the white owl, she did not look as though at any second she might rouse herself and carry on with her day.

Mum died. She didn’t “pass over”, “pass away” or “fall asleep”; she isn’t watching over me from “the other side”. I know this, yet for weeks I struggled to comprehend what had actually happened. Intellectually I accepted that she was dead, and that it was forever, but at the same time I couldn’t understand where exactly she had gone.

In winter mortality peaks for humans, as well as barn owls and other creatures, which is no surprise. As we sleep, small mammals freeze to death and the bodies of birds drop quietly from their roosts, felled by cold. We witness little of this, as most animal corpses are either scavenged or quickly decay, often taken underground by burying beetles where decomposition returns their carbon, water and other nutrients to the soil: faster when the ground is warm, more slowly in the winter months. This process of recycling is vital to life on Earth; one of the most chilling things about the Chernobyl disaster was the way that decay was halted, radiation having wiped out the leaf litter’s invertebrate, microbial and fungal communities. Whatever died in those forests – shed leaves, insects, birds, mammals – didn’t even rot. It simply remained.

In some scenic parts of the British countryside you’re now more likely to stumble across lingering evidence of human deaths than animal. I’ve lost count of the number of shrines, floral tributes (many with plastic wrapping or artificial ribbons), metal plaques, benches and even piles of ashes I’ve passed; the summit of Snowdon is apparently now so covered in incinerated people that its sensitive ecology is being changed. I understand the impulse – it’s what we did with Mum, at her request – but there is something odd about hiking a beautiful stretch of coastal path, for example, and passing death after death after death.

I get a call from my neighbours a few days later; they aren’t donating the barn owl’s body to science, but neither do they want to give it to me. What feels right to them is to give it a proper, and permanent, burial – something I completely understand.

On the radio that night I hear that in the US a bill is passing through Washington’s state legislature to allow corpses to be composted, returning humans safely and cleanly to the earth, just as animals return. A keen gardener, Mum would have loved the idea – and I do, too. Turn me into anonymous, fertile soil when my time comes. Let me grow into something new. 

Melissa Harrison’s most recent novel, “All Among the Barley”, is set in Suffolk, where she lives

This article appears in the 08 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe