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Bubo, the bird-tiger of the woodland, slept quietly in the snow-laden beach tree. His feathers were fluffed against the cold. His great round head was sunk into the golden muff of his neck. The light from the setting sun still glowed in the forest crown where he slept. Beneath him it was twilight. A cold draft swirled up from the woodland floor, and Bubo, the great horned owl, blinked and awoke.
The dry beech leaves rattled around him so that he did not hear the tufted titmouse titter as he flew toward him from the woodlot fence row. Nor did Parus, the titmouse, know that the great horned owl had returned to the forest.
Parus was going to his night roosting cavity. One hundred feet from the beech where Bubo sat, he paused and called to his troop. A few members called back. This was their "all's well" signal of the twilight. Parus scanned the route to his night cavity. The way was clear of all enemies. He called once more, then flew like an arrow to his crevice and slipped in.
Parus was a small gray bird with a tuft on his head. He was the bold leader of a band of titmice that lived on the rich central range of the old sugar forest. Their range included the sunny clearing around the sugarhouse, the choice spot of the farm. The other troops of titmice in the maple woods respected Parus and his fellows. They stayed away from them on their own smaller ranges in other sections of the ancient forest.
Sitta, the white-breasted nuthatch, heard Parus's last call, and he, too, went to roost. Sitta and his mate often trailed the energetic Parus and his noisy troop, following them to patches of food and heeding the warning signals of the leader. Like Parus, Sitta roosted in a cavity at night. His was in a dead stub in a basswood tree not far from the sugarhouse. Sitta flew quietly to the stub, circled around to the hole beneath, and went in.
In the clearing before the sugarhouse, Richmondena, the cardinal, and Pipilo, the towhee, were still awake in the deserted evening woods. Pipilo made a last scratch in a leafy pocket free of snow. He jumped to a raspberry stem just above the ground, called his wistful "zeed," and scanned the clearing as far as the cornfield. No prowlers were afoot. He flew on. His wings pumped him jerkily above the snow to a dense berry thicket. He worked his way low into the center of it and settled for the night with a soft rustle of his feathers. Pipilo was the only towhee of the forest. All the others were far to the south, as few towhees wintered in southern Michigan. The climate was too rigorous for them.
Richmondena, the cardinal, had five companions. The cardinals were the last to go to roost, and they made the greatest fuss about it. They arose from the thickets and flew into the low branches of the maples. Chipping loud and sharp, they scattered to higher and higher perches around the clearing. The males were brilliant and attractive in their scarlet plumages. When the cardinals had climbed to the very top of the forest crown, they nervously jerked and called, then flew quickly to their roosting sites. Richmondena's was in a tight mass of grapevine diagonally across the cornfield. He did not fly directly to it, but went by way of the trees that bordered the field. He paused frequently to chirp. He was still chipping when he reached the grapevine. Suddenly he became silent. He flew to the same stem that he used night after night. It was as if it were a tight cavity so precisely did he set his feet in the same spot each evening.
It was dark when Richmondena shook his feathers and thrust his bill into the warmth of his shoulder and back. The forest was silent, but not inactive.
Scampering from beneath the floor of the sugarhouse came the white-footed mouse. He leaped to a stump, darted across it and paused at the far edge. His large bright eyes functioned well in the darkness. He twitched his ears. His whiskers vibrated as he smelled the cold air, then he rocked back to his haunches and scratched a flea-bite. With a flying jump he left the stump and ran over the snow looking for the corncob he had found last night. He paused near a cottontail who sat motionless in a tangle of sticks and vines at the base of a stump. The cottontail heard the scampering feet of the mouse and sat tight in his form. He took no chances.
Down the lane that led from the barnyard came the hungry farm cat. In the darkness to his left a weasel loped over the snow. The weasel dived into a corn shock and wove through the frozen stalks looking for food. A field vole heard him coming and became senseless with fear.
Otus, the small gray screech owl, thrust his head out of his hollow in the forest maple and flew without sound to a limb of an elm near the sugarhouse. He preened his dappled breast feathers, closed his eyes halfway with his bottom lids, and looked over the snowy forest. His eyes widened, his ear tufts stood tall on his head, and his feathers closed tight against his body as he saw the white-footed mouse gnawing a last kernel on the corncob. Otus crouched, pivoted his head, and lifted his wings.
Felis, the house cat, turned from the lane into the cornfield. He followed the edge of the gully toward the sugarhouse. Ahead of him the weasel loped. The vole in the corn shock had eluded him and he had bounced back into the field. He reached the fence row at the forest edge and scented the air currents.
The white-footed mouse on the corncob smelled the pungent odor of the weasel and stopped chewing. He dived into a snowy burrow at the base of a yarrow stalk as Otus came swooping down upon him. The owl saw his game dart away and alighted on a nearby stump to consider his failure. The weasel saw the wings of the owl break and fold. He sprang toward him. The cat saw the action of the weasel and hurried forward. The cottontail stepped to the edge of his stump tangle.
From the heart of the forest came a low vibrating call:
"WHOO, WHOOWHOO, WHOO, WHOOO!" A cold fear seized the woodland. Bubo had returned! The great tiger-bird was in the forest again.
Parus, who slept directly beneath the owl, was awakened by the boom. His tail feathers bent against the floor as he moved back into his cavity. Sitta, the white-breasted nuthatch, lifted his head from his shoulder and listened. His eyes were glassy.
Pipilo, the towhee, also heard the boom. He squatted lower on his stalk. Richmondena tightened his hold on the grapevine stem.
Otus listened, judged the location of the great Bubo, and flew swiftly down the fence line. He flew to a far corner of his territory and perched silently on an old elm limb. He sidled up to the bole. He suffered great fear. For nearly a year he had flown the forest with little danger to himself. Bubo's return ended this freedom. He would now be diverted by fear of the big owl. Otus had flown as far away from Bubo as he was able within his forest territory. He could go no farther than this elm, for beyond lay the territories of other screech owls. Should he fly farther he would be attacked by them. Otus and his mate lived on ten acres of the forest. They also hunted the neighboring fields by night. Here they felt at home. In fact, instinct kept them on these ten acres that they knew so well. Generations of owls before them had learned that to move to a new home was dangerous. They would not know the hollows and retreats, the hunting grounds, and the whereabouts of the small mammals. They would be at a disadvantage and not survive long.
Felis, the house cat, saw Otus fly down the fence row and thought he was being attacked by Bubo. He spit and leaped into the protection of the thicket. Raspberry thorns tore his fur as he turned on his back and bared his claws for the battle. Nothing happened. He rolled on his side and waited.
The weasel, who had halted at Bubo's call, was prompted into action by the fleeing cat. Something large had moved, and he was taking no chances. It might be Bubo. He plunged to the base of the stump where the cottontail sat, shocked motionless by Bubo's boom. Instantly, the weasel smelled the rabbit. He slid around the roots and lunged at the cottontail's head. The alerted rabbit saw him out of the back of his eye. Automatically his taut muscles catapulted him out into the snow, but the weasel's lunge met him as he leaped. The mustelid's powerful jaws closed on the cottontail's shoulder, and the weasel rode out into the snow with his victim.
Overhead Bubo was circling. He had heard the snarl of Felis and had left his beech tree to see what was astir. Before he reached the cat, however, his great yellow eyes came into focus on the scuffle at the stump. He changed his course, pulling deep on his out-wing and pumped downward toward the fray. His descent was soundless and rapid. He was coming into the fight at sixty-five miles an hour. Just before he hit, he dropped his feet out of his tail coverts. His black talons gleamed above the white snow.
The cottontail covered twenty feet in his first panicked leap, weasel and all. He hit the snow and dug in his feet. With a side twist he wrenched himself away from the weasel. The weasel flew forward to the spot where Bubo had timed his strike. Even as the weasel struck the ground, Bubo's talons closed around him. Instantly he was dead.
Bubo hunched over his prey, all the feathers on his body lifted until he was twice his normal size. His great wings drooped forward. He stared at the fleeing rabbit.
Felis, the house cat, saw the formidable owl arched over his food. He turned and sped toward the farmyard.
As the eastern sky was lightened with the coming sun, the prowlers of the night went to their daytime shelters. Bubo flew back to his beech. He fluffed out his feathers to hold in his body heat, for this hour before daylight was the coldest of the long winter night.
Otus was finishing a field mouse, the only prey he had taken during a long night of cautious hunting. He left the limb where he had eaten his prey and flew softly to his roost in the maple tree. He was surprised to find his mate there. She had gone to roost earlier in the dawn, and her body had already heated the small cavity. Otus stood beside her. The warmth made him drowsy. Asio and Otus slept serenely, two soft puffs in the wooden heart of the maple.
Sylvilagus, the cottontail, had bedded down beneath the raspberry patch many hours before. He had left the sugarhouse and had limped to the berry thicket about an hour after Bubo had flown away. Here he had licked his wound.
Felis, the house cat, leaped to a beam in the cow barn. He tucked his feet carefully under his body, swung his tail around him, and closed his eyes. The warmth from the bodies of the cows had heated the air of the barn, and he did not feel the penetrating cold of the last hour before sunrise.
Richmondena, the cardinal, was the first to get up. He was awake during the cold hour, but he did not move about, for there still was not enough light in the forest. He shook his feathers, relaxed them, and shook again. Then he voided, and the dropping fell on a little pyramid of droppings that had amassed on a twig below from previous mornings.
When Richmondena could see the vines of the grape thicket, he flew out into the forest. He uttered sharp clicks as he flew. He dashed down the fence line calling loudly to his companions. A female answered him from the marsh and he joined her there. A few minutes later another male came chipping through the woods to meet them.
Parus, the titmouse, heard the cardinals, but he stayed in his snug cavity until the sun glowed on the forest limbs. Then he thrust his head out, scanned the skyways, and flew to a nearby perch. He called to his troop. One by one they answered as they left their crevices and cavities. They joined the active Parus at the western edge of the swamp where the morning sun was full upon the trees.
Every member of the troop had heard the boom of the great owl during the night, and they stayed near Parus, watching him for signals of danger. The tiger-bird might still be hunting. They fluttered nervously around the trees looking for insect larvae hidden in the crevices of the bark.
Sitta, the nuthatch, poked his head out of his cavity and looked down into the clearing at the sugarhouse. It was a cold morning and he was not anxious to leave his warm roost. He waited for the call of his mate. Eventually he heard her behind the sugarhouse, and Sitta slipped from his cavity. He circled the stub and walked down it to the trunk of the tree. Circling and hopping, he wound to the top of the basswood. There he answered his mate: "ank, ank, ank." She flew across the clearing to join him, and as she did his note changed to a soft "ink, ink, ink." Leisurely, they looked for food as they made their way toward Parus and his band.
Pipilo, the towhee, hopped down from his raspberry stem and scratched the leaves. He did not call, for there were no towhees to answer. Nor did he join the other birds. He hunted alone. Finding nothing in the leaves under his perch, he flew to the stump where the rabbit had sat the night before. He saw a red spot of blood in the snow and the wing prints around it where Bubo had struck. He found a berry on one of the vines by the stump. He ate it, looking up as he swallowed to see Parus and his troop wing into the clearing. One curious titmouse flew to the stump to see what Pipilo had found, but was immediately chased away by the dominant Parus. Parus wanted to check the towhee and the stump himself. Pipilo also yielded the stump to the leader of the titmice.
Parus found nothing of interest there, but he stood briefly to show who was boss, then winged to the fence row. On a thorn of a raspberry he discovered a tuft of fur from the back of Felis, the cat. He pecked it and it fell to the ground. It had no meaning for Parus. The struggle of the night was unknown to the creatures of the sunlight. Even Bubo's arrival was forgotten as the titmouse band took up their chores of the day.
From out of the east came Corvus, the crow. He flew to the top of a tall sugar maple and called to two of his cohorts who were flying overhead. They cawed back as they flew. Just beyond the forest they heard Corvus call again. There was a change in his voice. The two crows circled back, for they knew by the frantic cry that Corvus had found a hawk or an owl or a fox.
Corvus had found Bubo sitting in the beech. He was screaming at him from a safe distance. When he saw his two friends coming back to see what he was about, he grew bolder and flew to the top of the tree where Bubo slept.
Two more crows heard the distant call and left a pig farm to track down the trouble. They arrived just as Corvus dived at the great owl.
Bubo opened his left eye and looked at the crow. Corvus saw the black pupil gleaming at him from within the yellow iris, and he turned away with great excitement. Another crow dived at Bubo; his wing touched the owl's shoulder. Still another came toward him, and from the rear another. For a long time Bubo sat silent and bored, then he became annoyed. He could not sleep. He lifted his four feet of gold and gray wings and flapped out into the sunlight. The leaves of the beech rustled as the owl veered away. Now the crows were frantic. Bubo was flying! Bubo was abroad! They cawed and screamed as they followed the owl.
Parus saw the shadow of the soaring owl pass over the snow. He stopped eating and gave voice to his cry of warning, "seeeeeeee." All business in the clearing stopped. The nuthatches, the cardinals, the towhee, the downy and hairy woodpeckers froze where they were.
Bubo went to the open cavity in the giant elm, the largest tree of the forest. He stepped back into the dark shadows so that the crows could not see him. They waited and watched, cawing now and then. When the owl did not come out, they lost interest and flew off one by one. Corvus remained until the last, still fussing and insisting that the owl was still near. Finally he, too, flew away.
When the crows broke up their rally and the forest became calm, the little birds began to sing and feed again. Once more the woodland sounded of winter birds going busily about their day.
Excerpted from Bubo, the Great Horned Owl by Jean Craighead George, John George. Copyright © 1954 E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 23, 2011
Exellent for bird lovers like me. Jean craighead george is a great author. I loved her biook Juilie Of The Wolves.
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Posted September 29, 2012
This book accurately portrays a great horned owl's life;the dangers,problems,and triumphs.I enjoyed this book alot.
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Posted July 11, 2012
Posted September 18, 2012
Posted March 12, 2012
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