Opinion | The Art and Education of Owling

On a recent evening, my 7-year-old son, Theo, asked if I would take him on a safari. We live on a small island off the coast of Maine, where the majority of the roads are gravel and one can step into the woods within minutes.

This particular night was unseasonably warm. We hopped in our car in search of the wild animals — beaver, deer, roosting turkeys — that share our woods. After two loops around the island, my son asked me to cut onto a sandy stretch lined with ferns and nettle that skirted the edge of a dense forest; conifers and hollowed-out oaks, a woodpecker’s bliss. The sun had long set, and a rich fog mixed with light pollution from the nearby city, making nature look more like a steamy film noir train station.

“Stop the car,” said Theo. I obliged and watched my son as he pulled out a bundle of old fisherman’s rope, unfurling it like a banner until it revealed something that looked like a dead rodent tied to its other end.

What Theo was actually holding was a mouse decoy, born out of a ball of duct tape, petal-sized ears included, with two Sharpie marker dots for eyes and a broken beige rubber band for a tail. Gripping one end of the rope, Theo dropped the mouse out of the window and said, “OK, Mom. You can drive now, but not too fast.” So I drove, not too fast, the little mouse trailing behind us.

We were owling.

For months, and more than anything in the world, Theo had wanted to see an owl. Ever since the pandemic ushered us indoors, my son has been pining for nature — particularly birds, specifically owls — and has become a junior armchair ornithologist. Through his curious eyes, I’ve come to appreciate owling as an opportunity for humility. I remember to revere the outdoor world. The purity of its reasoning, the beauty of its math and its magic. How it holds no grudges yet favors no one.

As the car inched forward, Theo leaned out of the window. “Please come!” he whispered into the woods.

And then, one did: A barred owl (we think) swooped down like a poltergeist and dove toward the mouse decoy. But the bird wasn’t fooled and flew back into the trees, talons empty, the moon aglow. No matter, because to describe the surprise and exaltation of that brief moment, in both Theo’s heart and mine, would be to dampen our shared feeling, which was nothing short of awe.

The mechanics of owling is simple — you go outside and try to spot an owl. But there is also a complexity to it: For one, owling requires consideration and respect for the owl. You need to channel owl empathy. An owl is wild. On their minds are three concerns: shelter, food, reproduction. Whatever calories their bodies are expending, it is to secure those needs. To survive. Dangling a carrot or a homemade mouse decoy in front of this animal, whose sole mission is to find a meal and also not die, is not OK. Owls feed their strongest babies first. They are not sentimental; they are savage.

Owling can be done anywhere, as owls live on every continent except Antarctica. They nest in trees, caves, barns, attics, just about any structure with a cavity or hollow. (One birder reported a screech owl who built her nest atop a plastic scare owl, another under the hood of a Mini Cooper.)

Owling is an education: We are learning about the natural world by being in nature, dancing with it in real time. Owling teaches patience: Rarely do we actually connect with an owl. Sometimes it’s just a crow, which is equally thrilling, even if incredibly common. Owling opens the senses we so often neglect: the sound of the wind on beech tree leaves, the smell of hemlock and vine, fern and hawthorn.

When you owl, you usually go on foot, the soft moss beneath you as your eyes adjust to the dark. It is a walk of reconnaissance and reverence. You listen, and you connect. Maybe you’ll discover something accidentally — the scent of night-blooming jasmine or the thudding silence of boots on snow. Many owls are nocturnal and some are crepuscular, which means your best chances of seeing them are at times when you’d most likely be indoors, either sleeping or getting ready to.

When we owl, we return to our truest selves. We are reminded that we humans are not the biggest things. That we can’t win by sheer force. When we owl, we are taking it all in rather than moving forward. Our measurements of social success, fabricated hierarchies, attractiveness, money, are benign, useless. When we owl, we are not ruled by our possessions, by looks, by likes. We mean no harm, have nothing to hide.

To owl is to have an experience that cannot be bought, cannot be imitated. It asks nothing but holds all we need to be truly awake.

Mira Ptacin (@MiraPtacin) is the author of the memoir “Poor Your Soul” and “The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna.”