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1 September 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 5:56pm

Unlike most of its kind, the short-eared owl comes to us in the daytime – but remains otherworldly

As I was held in its eerie gaze, I saw an alien intelligence, a mind that was totally other. 

By John Burnside

It was late afternoon, on a late summer’s day, around 20 years ago. I had been walking since sunrise over low marshland and open moor; the weather had ranged from cold, sleety rain to hazy sunshine, but I was dry inside my clothes, and only an hour or three from where I was expected. Whether this constitutes happiness, I cannot say, but it felt good to be out there – alone, but for the crows and the occasional hare – a living body moving across open ground, far from the usual clamour.

The bird appeared from somewhere to my left, an unidentified instance of colour and movement that only resolved into recognisable form when it settled on a disused gatepost, only a few yards ahead. Though I had never seen one so close, I knew from its dark-ringed, almost butter-yellow eyes, and from the way it held itself, that this was a short-eared owl. It was a bird I knew from a distance: in fact, I had spent an hour, earlier that week, watching one hunt – systematically quartering a patch of scrubby terrain in a series of low, controlled passes, a dynamo of perfect attentiveness, gliding to and fro on wide, elegant wings.

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This bird was just as attentive, but now I was the focus of its eerie gaze. I cannot say how long it stayed there, its small gold eyes watching me: I had expected it to fly off as soon as it recognised me as human, but for a long moment it remained perfectly still – and in that moment, I felt that it was assessing me in some way, taking me in, even recognising me as a fellow creature and wondering what I was about. Why was I there? What purpose did I serve? Was I altogether real? And if I was, did I know what it knew, had I seen what it had seen?

This is a projection, no doubt: I have no way of knowing how such questions are framed in an owl’s mind. Yet I do honestly recall that I saw an intelligence there, an awareness that I responded to, a mind that was totally other, but was nevertheless a mind, awake and attentive to the moment, as mine was.

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At the same time, I am aware of how deceptive memory can be. Remembrance is an exercise in understanding, not pure knowledge; its role is not that of faithful witness, but of active narrator. When I recall that brief encounter, I do not simply reproduce it in my mind’s eye, I use it to make sense of the world. That owl has become a kind of personal totem, an animal messenger – and this, I think, is why I have remembered it for so long. It is more to me than historical fact. It answers something that I cannot even articulate in words. It locates me.

[See also: As I set free a swallow from my sitting room, I feel a glad sense of the summer to come]

All very fanciful, I’m sure. And yet… What strikes me, thinking about the Short-eared Owl, is that it’s the only one of its tribe, in my part of the world, that is regularly seen by day (other than the Little Owl, a creature of the dusk, our owl clans are mainly nocturnal). Short-eared Owls come to us in the daylight, and yet they are otherworldly, mysterious, possible intermediaries.

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Recalling the face of that bird, I am reminded, now, of the “angels” that survive as stone carvings in a handful of Scottish cemeteries – the same round heads, the same unsettling gaze. To me, these are not Christian symbols, but the residue of an earlier, more physically attuned (in short, a pagan) awareness. Might it be that the old, still half-pagan stonemasons were inspired by the short-eared owl to envisage an entity that, had it not been given some articulated form, would remain impalpable and, so, beyond all apprehension?

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Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future