In 19th-century Irish slang, "the gentleman who paid the rent" was the tenant farmer's pig, a source of meat or cash.
In one 20th-century southern Colorado household--ours--the gentleman who paid the rent was Strix occidentalis lucida, the "Mexican" race of the spotted owl.
Our owling started on Earth Day, 1990. M. and I wandered past a little line of booths and tables set up in the Canon City Wal-Mart parking lot, stopping to talk with Cindy Rivera, then-district ranger for the Forest Service. She was recruiting volunteers, and one need was for people to conduct an owl census.
We said we would try it. Training was non-existent, but some local birders made us a tape of spotted owl calls. (After a year of carrying a tape recorder and speaker on the trail, we learned to make our own vocal calls.)
Then M. broke a toe while walking our irrigation ditch. Finally, in August, she was ready to go. Where should we go? At first, out of ignorance, we were searching up too high in the forest, but then I thought of a deep canyon that I had looked into while hunting.
We found a pair of owls there--and that was half of the spotted owls located in Colorado in 1990. Suddenly we were experts--or if not experts, at least respected.
The next spring, the local BLM office awarded us a small no-bid contract. After that, we did have to bid--against hungry grad students and professional wildlifers both. Forget your legendary $600 toilet seats--the taxpayers got their money's worth on owling contracts.
After four years of night-time hiking, calling, and filling out owl-census forms in triplicate, we were underbid in 1995 by about a penny an acre. For a little while, we felt terrible, deprived of our summertime vocation. But it was a rainy spring--which someone else got to endure--and my mother developed a fatal illness. All in all, it was just as well that we did not have a census protocol to fulfill.
Beside, the big owl-census push, fueled by a lawsuit against the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, was winding down. And we were no longer financially strapped part-time academics. We had more income now, and we had moved into a house not many miles from our first successful owling location. We called it, naturally, "Owl House."
The gentleman had not merely paid the rent, he had helped with the mortgage too.