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Bird encounters through the generations

Family traditions

My great-great grandmother wrote a book about homesteading in Northern Nevada. When we lived near Reno, our family went each Mother’s Day to the homestead site for a picnic. We looked at the springs developed by AJ Olds, my great-great grandfather on those rocky, sagebrusy Nevada mountains. We picked wildflowers in the meadows, played in the old rock corrals and the cellar–which are the only remaining evidence that people once lived there. Through the stories in the book and the love for land and wide open spaces I witnessed in my grandparents and parents, I bonded with those beautiful and treacherous wide open spaces of Nevada .  It is probably in my blood–thanks to these pioneers–to feel contentedly at home in the most sparsely populated county in California. A place where I can run on the dry lake bed mid-day surrounded by silence, with wilderness Nevada just to the east, the Warner Mountains to the west and more cattle around than people. My great-grandmother Martha Olds, (daughter of Sarah E.Olds who homesteaded in Northern Nevada and wrote the book) influenced my early childhood. She and I shared a love of horses, ranches, cattle, wide open spaces (and later I discovered, cowboys too). She lived in Winnemucca, Nevada when I was little so I saw her only on holidays, when she would visit my grandparents (her daughter) and my family in Northern California. Between visits we wrote letters to each other. She gave me her horse when she stopped riding (in her 80s). She also gave me my first saddle, which was an old saddle that my grandmother had as a child. A horsehair braided rope made for her when she was a girl by cowboys on the Winnemucca Ranch hangs on a wall in my parents house. She gave it to me for Christmas when I was eight. I wonder about those horses whose hair is woven together in that timeless piece. About the cowboys who braided it. About the generations that passed between Martha and me. Some day it will be Maezy’s, my daughter’s, and she’ll own something that was 100 years old at the time of her birth. Martha wrote a book too: Weeping Willow. But despite all the cowboy culture artifacts, legends and stories passed down in our family from the Olds women, it was actually a story about a bird that brought me closest to my great-grandmother many years after she passed.

A bird in the fence

I walked on the ranch at sundown on September evening. Tied across my back was a fruit-picking basket. I was determined to find one apple on a tree, one elderberry bush that bore fruit this drought-ridden year. I found none. The dogs romped through the golden grass and sagebrush as I trekked across Springs Ranch. Of all the different paths and trails I could have chosen that day, I walked along one that led me right to a barbed wire fence. And in that fence, hanging by his wings in the lowest wire, was a great-horned owl. He had punctured one wing with a barb and then flipped around so his wings were stretched out in the fence. As soon as I saw him, I recalled a story Martha had written about finding a hawk in a trap. She set it free without the bird fighting in defense. It is a simple, poignant story about trust and the communication between humans and animals–that when experienced feels nothing short of magic. I wondered if the owl would respond in the same way.

He watched me with his huge yellow eyes. One eye blinked, then the other. His claws (sharp as knives and almost as long) dug swaths in the ground as he tried to free himself. His feathers were light tan with dark speckles across them. He was fluffy. A young bird. I came close and sat next to him. He only watched me. I called Maezy and Pati (my mother-in-law) to bring fence pliers. We sat there and waited. Just the owl and me. He relaxed, letting his claws droop and his eyelids rest at half mast. When Pati arrived and went to work freeing him, he made no attempt to attack her. She even removed her gloves–a brave move, given the size of his talons–to better work on the fence. We worked inches from him to cut the wire, pull it from his wing and unwind him from the fence. When he was free he sat there watching us. We didn’t know if the wing was broken or if he would fly again. He kept those big yellow eyes on us just watching–unaffected by the dogs, Maezy or us. Then in one silent swoop he rose to the sky. His flight was wobbly but he flew! We watched him until he disappeared behind the aspen grove and out of sight.

 

After freeing the bird, I went back and re-read the story of my great-grandmother and the hawk. (Thank you to Vivian Olds for sending me this story of Martha’s!) I was curious. Were our experiences–so many years apart–similar? They were. Here is the story of my great-grandmother Martha Old’s encounter with a hawk.

Hawks are to Fly

 by Martha Olds Byrnes

The jingle of a chain haunted me. The path I was ambling along made a sharp turn, and high sagebrush blocked my view. July was not the month for trapping of coyote or wildcat, yet I was sure the sound I heard was from a trapped animal. Cautiously, I approached a turn in the path. Directly in front of me, caught by a chain entangled in the top of a sagebrush, was a large hawk. His right claw was clamped in the jaws of a ground squirrel trap. 

The sun bore down. The bird was panting, wings half-spread to catch the faintest breeze. He was magnificent, around eighteen inches long in body, with a wing spread of what must have been close to four feet. His large golden eyes surveyed me calmly. The long. curved beak closed. He seemed to wait for me to help him. 

The first step was to get him out of the bush and onto the ground where I could open the jaws of the trap to release him. He neither struggled nor took those amazing eyes off of me as I carefully untangled the chain from the bush and allowed him to settle on the ground.  

The next step was to free his foot. I recalled stories of the ferocity of eagles and hawks caught in traps. No help was close at hand; the hawk was suffering. In order to release the trap, I had to kneel on the ground and put my face scant inches from that curved, imperious beak. I moved slowly as I tried with my hands to open the jaws of the trap that held him so cruelly. The jaws were too strong, my hands too weak. 

I had to creep closer to get my foot on the jaw. During all these maneuvers, my hawk stood quietly, wings still slightly raised, intelligent eyes watching intently. We were now nose-to-beak as I awkwardly used one foot to press on the stubborn jaw. I felt my hair brush against his head as the trap finally opened. 

Now a new problem arose. Three of the dark talons were stuck fast to the trap jaw. I gently pried the ruined toes from the iron, acutely conscious of his intense scrutiny. Now he was free at last. During the whole ordeal he had never struggled nor threatened me in any way. I had kept up a running commentary, telling him softly what  a beautiful, lovely, brave bird he was. I told him I loved him, that soon he would be free, that he must forever be wary of humans. 

He bent his royal head  and looked down at his maimed claw, which had two toes dangling and a third that might grow back on. Then he gazed directly at me. I have never had man or beast look at me with such benign understanding.

I backed slowly away, still on knees that I suddenly realized were asleep and numb, then rose and making a little detour around him, left him standing on the path.

A half-hour later, having completed my usual walk, I found him still standing in the path. I stopped and watched as he took a few tentative steps, then he opened his wings and gained altitude. He circled slowly over me, then rose majestically higher and higher in to his own domain.

 

Winnemucca Ranch, Nevada, Martha Olds

Martha Olds, age 16, on the summer hay crew at Winnemucca Ranch, Nevada.