The Fifth Participant
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, October 31, 2009.)
Today is the day. It’s what I think, what I feel, every time I enter the woods in pursuit of whitetail deer. It’s a premonition that the day will bring something special.
The hunter is part predator, part spectator.
I picture an 8-point buck walking into an opening and my arrow disappearing into its chest. But the kill never seems to happen just how I picture it.
No, the kill usually doesn’t happen at all. Every day cannot be a day for death. On most days no buck steps into that fatal shooting lane. No deer presents the correct shot angle. I go home empty handed.
Yet I always believe that today is the day, the day for a new adventure, a new insight, a new opportunity to participate in nature’s drama.
On one October afternoon, loaded with optimism and a quiver of arrows, I headed to my treestand anticipating that day’s unique experience.
At about a hundred yards from my stand I began laying down a scent trail around the perimeter of an abandoned apple orchard. I aimed to intercept the nose of any deer passing through, and direct it to a spot 15 yards from my ladder stand.
I glanced to my right and noticed some scattered feathers near a thicket. Large feathers. A big bird had met its executioner and left its plumage to mark its passing. Closer inspection revealed the feathers of an owl, distinctive because of the rounded tips with softly frayed ends, an adaptation that silences the wings for surprise attacks.
I finished the scent trail, climbed into my stand and turned to look over my shoulder. Dangling from a dead snag, about 20 yards away and six feet high, was more evidence of the demise of the magnificent bird.
The right wing of a barred owl, complete with all its primary feathers, quaked in the gentle breeze. It was dark on top and creamy on the bottom, with distinct chocolate brown bars. I wondered how it got there.
As I waited for a deer to become my own prey, I considered the mystery of this great bird’s ending.
A half dozen industrious squirrels mined the bounty of nuts in a hickory grove adjacent to the apple trees. I enjoyed watching their antics and hearing them scurry in the forest litter. Surely the abundance of squirrels would draw predators to this lively spot.
I pictured the owl, whose wingspan had been nearly 50 inches, perched in the treetop eyeing a squirrel and waiting for it to let down its guard. Two participants, but there must have been a third. What preys on this large airborne predator?
I remembered the coyote I saw pass through a few nights earlier, and imagined him lying in the thicket, watching the same squirrel work its way close enough to become a quick, easy meal.
Oblivious to the coyote, the big barred owl plunged to the earth on silent wings and sank its talons into the careless squirrel’s spine, hardly allowing it time to know it had been attacked.
The assault surprised the coyote and triggered his split second response. He struck, sinking his teeth into the owl’s round head and taking two prizes at once. Before the wing beats subsided, he began reducing the owl to dinner. When finished he carried the squirrel away, satisfied but soon hungry again.
The executioner was executed; the predator had become prey. Scattered feathers and a wing were left for me to discover.
One question remained. How did the wing of the owl get to the top of the six-foot snag? The call of a crow answered my thoughts. Because owls suffer endless harassment from the black scavengers, I surmised that the wing was lifted to this perch to be plundered by a crow, the fourth participant in this drama.
After the crow had stripped the wing of its flesh, he left what remained as a totem – a reminder that every day is indeed a day for death, and that the hunter is part predator, part spectator.
I envy the efficiency of the full time predators, yet I’m glad that my life does not depend on killing something every day.
Yes, today is the day. Today is always the day.