Sally found it. She was raking last year’s leaves and needles from under one of the big pines between the cottage and the garage, and saw a gray and furry-looking blob. At first she thought it might be scat. But there was just the one small lump, and on closer inspection she saw it was threaded with tiny bones. Mouse bones. It was an owl pellet.
Owls, I’ve read, eat their prey whole. Their systems can harvest nutrients from most parts of the animals they eat, and what they can’t use they regurgitate in a pellet like the one Sally found: fur and bones. It was quite dry, and pretty clean, although the bottom of it had once been sticky – there were a few pine needles plastered to it. She put the pellet on the old aluminum table that sits out in the yard so I could study it, too. I took a picture. It was between two and three inches long, and looked a bit like a miniature clump of knitting, stuck through with tiny needles.
Soon after, our neighbor from down the road came by, walking his dog, while we were raking around the mailbox. “Want to see our owl pellet?” Sally asked him. Like us, he loves the outdoors and is interested in the natural world. He said yes, and came down the drive with us and into the yard to see.
“Where’d you find it?” he asked, looking it over, and Sally pointed a couple of feet away. I couldn’t read the expression on his face, as he followed her gesture, and then looked up and around the yard. To the north, my sister’s property is as of yet undeveloped, and while I can see my next-door neighbor’s house to the south, my wetland lot, with the spring creek that is right now merrily burbling its way out into the Bay, lies between. A lot of people on this road have just one lot, sandwiched between two houses. I wondered if he was thinking owls must like the privacy of our yard. Or was he looking behind Sally at the homemade fence my dad put up next to the garage, to keep the deer out the year he had a garden? It’s falling down. I haven’t decided what to do with it; or with our ancient, rusty wheelbarrow, which is propped up against it. I’m thinking I may make the barrow into a planter…
I mentioned that I remember my dad once found a tree where an owl was roosting, just off the trail across the road from our driveway. “I don’t know where it is, now,” I said. “There were lots of bones and pellets underneath it.” My voice rasped some, as I said it. Our neighbor’s face looked a little sad, and I thought maybe he was seeing for a moment what it was like here, forty years ago or more, how much I remember, and how sometimes change is a mournful thing.
Then he told us about a screech owl he heard one night. It was putting up a terrible racket, he told us; he said he was out in his pajamas in the middle of the night, trying to see what it was. “It sounded like a kid being killed!” he said, and laughed. I nodded in agreement. I’ve heard that sound, too. The summer I was nineteen, I was alone at the cottage but for the family dogs. They wanted out in the middle of the night, and as I stood at the back door peering into the pitch blackness and waiting for them to come back, I heard an ear-splitting scream. It truly sounded like someone being killed, except somehow more supernatural. (I guess because it wasn’t human.) I didn’t know what it was. I had to ask my dad about it, later. Without hesitation he said, “Screech owl.”
Our neighbor and his dog moved on to finish their walk, and we put the owl pellet in the garage. Like so much we used to bring in from the outdoors, not just stones and shells, but snakeskins, bird bones, the empty paper wasp nest my dad hung in a corner of the ceiling – we’ll keep it. It’s a sign that the wild is still here, around us. It’s a hopeful thing.