January 31, 2017

Valley of Broken Dreams and Broken Owls

Owl tangled in a barbed wire fence.
Not today's owl, but similar.
(Colorado Parks and Wildlife)
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You drive south from Westcliffe and after the shooting range, a subdivision with "Ranch" in its name, and the Silver West Airport with its 7,000 foot runway (handy for private jets), you pass over a hardly perceptible divide into Another Place, the upper Huerfano Valley.

I think of it sometimes as the Valley of Broken Dreams— there were the people who thought that they would make it as ranchers, and mostly did not, and in the 1960s, various artists and countercultural dropouts who thought it was the place to be. It still attracts some hardscrabble retirees. Fine if you want lots of solar power but do not plan to grow gardens.

Drop City, founded by art students from the U. of Kansas, is claimed as the "first rural hippie commune." The Libre community was also well-known. And there were others — read Huerfano: A Memoir of Life in the Counterculture.
All this is running through my mind as I blast south on Colorado 69 towards Gardner, which looks more like northern New Mexico than adjacent bits of Colorado — flat-roofted adobe or pseudo-adobe houses, piñon pine and juniper, no water to speak of.

My purpose is to pick up a great horned owl, found by a resident's daughter the previous day tangled in a barbed wire fence.

PRO TIP: If you find a bird tangled in barbed wire, do not peel the wire away. Take out your fence pliers or bolt cutters and cut the wire on either side, then bring wire and bird together to a raptor center or veterinarian. If you don't have fence pliers, stop at the hardware store and get some!

I found the house—acres of bone-dry pasture and a little house with good passive solar that was in the usual country status — never quite finished. As I walked through the crowded entryway with my gloves and pet carrier, the owner (70-ish, jeans and sweatshirt) asked me if I knew anyone who could help put some all these 4 x 8-foot panels of particle board that she had stacked up.

I wondered if she had come in the days of Drop City or if she had selected this as a retirement homestead more recently. She would have told me —she seemed lonely and talkative — but I just wanted to get some vet care for the owl.

Of course they had peeled off the wire. I asked if the owl had had any food, and she said that she had tried to give it some "baby oatmeal." But then (after a day) she had called the Raptor Center and been told not to do that. I silently agreed. Owls eat mice.

Its head was up, but it did not struggle much as I lifted it from her cardboard carton into my carrier. "They're going to help you feel better," she cooed to the bird.

I am not a vet nor even a trained Raptor Center volunteer. I just try to get the bird loaded with minimal handling and then drive hard for Pueblo, which was about 90 minutes away. Kind of like a 1950s ambulance driver — in the pre-EMT era. But I know that broken wing bones usually mean the final injection. The Center has enough one-winged birds on exhibition already.

Eventually I reached the interstate, accelerated up to 70 mph and hated modern life. Most of the time, we don't even to make space in our world for the other non-human peoples. There were no cattle around that house — why all the barbed wire?

As I think of that, I pass a cluster of bird-bashing wind turbines. And then at Burnt Mill Road a billboard for the Pueblo Zoo with some cute exotic felid kitten on it. I would rather see a healthy owl that belongs here than some exotic cat inside a cage.

At the raptor ICU, I did the paperwork. "Is this the owl from Gardner?" asked the ICU volunteer. "There's another one coming from Fowler."

There are three other great horned owls in the ICU. What is happening to them? This is their breeding season — are they just out and about more and getting into bad situations?

Paperwork done, I say goodby and start home. I have driven 167 miles (64 Spanish leagues or 534 li). The bird probably won't make it, but it was important to answer the call.

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