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Washington Voices

Encounter with an owl a special gift

Sat., June 2, 2012

Sandi Babcock and Cailleach at West Coast Falconry.
Sandi Babcock and Cailleach at West Coast Falconry.

It was a Mother’s Day gift of the most unusual kind.

Our jaunt to Northern California over Mother’s Day weekend included a drive through lush farmland and spacious ranches to the small town of Marysville and the home of West Coast Falconry.

I was ready, willing and able for my Mother’s Day raptor encounter to begin.

Raptors – or birds of prey – fascinate me. This January, I watched the yearly migration of bald eagles swoop, dive and skim across the waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Numbed fingers and chattering teeth couldn’t break the spell of powerful talons plucking fish from the water.

Now, the opportunity for a raptor of a different kind to perch on my gloved hand had arrived. I bubbled with anticipation, but played it cool while master falconers Kate Marden and Jana Barkley led our group in the introduction of the owl species and specifically Cailleach (pronounced Kayleesh), a Eurasian eagle owl, the world’s largest owl weighing 5 pounds with a wingspan of 6 feet.

Of all raptors, the owl is the most mesmerizing to me, making this close encounter so beyond breathtaking I’m not sure how I stayed so cool.

Perhaps it was the warm California sun gluing stray hair tendrils to my neck or the sweat sliding across my back that ratcheted down my eagerness. Perhaps it was the hot flashes. Either way, I was the picture of coolness as I stood before the predator with talons and beak that can rip skin and wreak havoc, yet the words coursing through my mind were, “This. Is. Totally. Awesome!”

Cailleach stood on her perch then transferred to Marden’s hand, stepping her thickly feathered feet onto the bulky leather glove. Her round orange-yellow eyes blinked ever so calmly. The erect plumacorn, tufts of feathers above the eyes, are indicative of mood. Right then , she was content.

She swiveled her head, surveying the mix of strangers, having no idea how remarkable this day was to the humans standing in a semi-circle before her. I’ve seen owls in the distance, watched them soar across an evening sky but up close and personal … it was a dream come true.

West Coast Falconry is the only training site in California to learn the art of falconry. Marden and Barkley teach people about raptors and the highly regulated sport of falconry that requires extensive training, licenses, sponsorship and dedication. Washington also has a falconry association that provides information on becoming an apprentice falconer.

Cailleach quietly observed while the master falconers provided insight into the world of owls. Primitive and small brained, owls are highly evolved meaning they can perfectly adapt despite their limited learning ability. Their hunting strategies utilize sight but more often sound, known as triangulation hearing, to follow prey even under a thick blanket of snow.

Owl education concluded, Cailleach was put through her paces. As she flew between falconers, the tips of her wings touched cheeks and provided a needed breeze on that warm day.

Then, the moment had arrived – we were invited to be Cailleach’s perch. It was all I could do to keep from jumping forward, hand raised like the too-smart kid at school. I held back my enthusiasm however and was the third participant to don glove and strike a perch pose.

Cailleach transitioned onto my hand, looked at me with those incredibly arresting eyes and proceeded to ignore me, concentrating on the pouch of edibles hanging at Marden’s side.

I was beyond excited; she was bored, her lowering plumacorn was proof. But it didn’t matter. This was, after all, a Mother’s Day gift of the most unusual kind. A long awaited dream come true.

Thanks, kids, I needed that.

Voices correspondent Sandra Babcock can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at columnists/

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