I am a raptor. A hunter of the night. A great horned owl.
I have taken a few small meals today — several mice, a vole or two, even a surprised mole — but the fleeing sun, the birds returning to their roosts, the sense of the daytime world settling in awakens my sluggish senses and reminds me of my constant hunger.
With a few calls and rustles, the woods grow quiet — for a moment. For those like me with ears to hear, there is never any quiet, even in sleep. There is the song of spring peepers; I’ve never eaten spring peeper, but I don’t have to waste my energy on such an insignificant tidbit when there are bigger temptations nearby. The call of crickets, which sound both deceptively near and deceptively far. The scurrying of nocturnal rodents under dry leaves, confident or at least hopeful that the darkness will both hide their vulnerability and protect them.
I listen, but what I want to hear eludes me. I sense mostly insects in the air and a few restless roosting birds. Occasionally, I can almost feel the odd disturbance in the currents as a bat swims through the air nearby in pursuit of a moth or perhaps a swarm of gnats.
My hunger is growing. I feel the emptiness in my stomach and guts expanding, expanding, consuming my whole being, all my thoughts . . . I have known this feeling before, and the sick weakness that comes with it, the difficulty of raising my wings, of raising the weight of my body . . .
My head snaps around, in the direction from which the moon will rise. It is still dark, but my left ear has detected a slight sound, a faint shuffling that I’ve heard many times before.
My right ear, now in position, works with the left to target the sound’s location — distance and direction. I sense food, the food for which I live, the food that allows me to live, and my thoughts and actions become automatic. Even the hunger and weakness and growing chill are forgotten.
I tilt my head slightly, to position my ears betters. There. There it is. It sounds fat. Juicy. Filling. Filling my stomach, then my gut. I can’t wait. But I have to. If I am impatient now, I will have to wait for another opportunity. And a fat, juicy, unaware opportunity like this one does not shuffle by nearly often enough.
It must be young, to be making so much noise. And old predator like me can hear, or at least sense, almost anything, even breathing.
Suddenly, the motion stops. Not close enough, although I don’t want to risk spooking it with my takeoff at this distance; there would be too much time, and room, in which it could escape.
So I wait. Tense but fluid, ready to go and able to do so in one smooth motion.
It seems to sense that something is not quite right. But it’s probably young and confident in its defenses. If it survives the night (not likely in my territory), it may live long enough to learn wisdom and common sense and discretion. If.
It stops. I can see it in my mind, its tiny, bright eyes trying to find light, any light, in the night, enough to see something. Its little nose is raised high, twitching. I know that is what it must be doing.
Not seeing anything, fearfully it lumbers on, somewhat more cautiously. It is close now, almost close enough. If only it does not veer off, forcing me to change my plans . . .
The near-silence of my wings always surprises me, but it is broken by a strong muffled thump as I land.
Squarely on my victim.
A fat skunk.
It struggles uselessly as my talons pierce its vital organs. Oh, the glorious feel of hot blood bathing my feet. I am careful not to let it foul my feathers with its spray, which otherwise doesn’t bother me, and to avoid its sharp teeth. Soon, suddenly, it relaxes, as though it has abruptly fallen into a deep sleep. My movements do not wake it up, and I relax, too.
The ground can be a dangerous place for me; I don’t belong here. I carry my meal back to my perch, where it seems to sprawl lazily, comfortably over the branch.
I dine. With each chunk of flesh, swallowed whole, I feel stronger. More powerful. More alive.
I save the brain for last. It is my favourite part.
Now I am heavy, warm, tired. But do not think I am asleep. The memory of hunger keeps me alert, even during rest.
If I hear you, I will find you.