Owls help open window to nature’s wonders

John Pepin

“Hey, little one, so far from home and so alone.” — Dorsey Burnette and Barry De Vorzon

In the fading daylight of a late winter’s afternoon, the cross atop the mine’s towering headframe, though unlit, was clearly visible, high above the Egyptian revival-style obelisks capping the A and B shafts of the Cliffs Shaft Mine.

However, it wasn’t the cruciform I was looking at, but rather, the pale outline of something at the top of the structure. Like a gargoyle, this creature sat more than 175 feet above the ground, gazing out over the town.

The phantom was white and large — a magnificent snowy owl, the first I’d ever seen.

I was a school boy then at the First Street grammar school. I remember coming home each afternoon, hoping to spot the owl atop the cross. The beautiful bird stayed throughout the winter, likely finding plenty of food available in the plump pigeons that frequented the heights of the mine’s three shafts.

This may have been the first time the magnitude of seasonal bird migration began truly sinking in for me. Unlike the familiar spring and fall flights of Canada geese, this arrival of an owl of the Arctic tundra in downtown Ishpeming seemed to be a magical event, a momentous occasion.

I would learn that not only had this mysterious flier traveled here from the Arctic, it was no mistake. The owl wasn’t blown off-course and accidentally ended up here. There were others scattered across the northern part of the country and, in some years, much farther south and west. This bird was going to fly back north when the winter was over to perhaps return one day.

I was immediately captivated, as some of the earliest peoples to encounter these owls seem to have been. In cave deposits at Pessac-sur-Dordogne, France numerous claws and phalanges of snowy owls were found, dating back to the most recent glaciation.

The find suggests to scientists the Magdalenian reindeer people living there at the time made ornaments or magical use of the owl claws.

Inuit people in Alaska call the snowy owl “ukpik” or “ukpikjuag.” In the Inupiaq language, there are several stories which paint this beautiful snow-white owl, with golden eyes and black bill as vain and prideful.

One Inuit legend says the snowy owl and raven were making new clothes for each other. The raven made the owl a pretty dress of black-and-white feathers — the plumage of young snowy owls. Owl made raven a beautiful white dress.

When owl asked the raven to allow her to fit the dress, the Raven was so excited she couldn’t keep still. She jumped around so much the owl got upset and dumped a pot of whale lamp oil on the raven. The oil soaked through the white dress, leaving raven black ever since.

In general, many American Indian tribes have strong associations with owls. In some cases, they are viewed as harbingers of death, in others, they are viewed as soft and an aid to tribal healers.

Some native people call the snowy owl “ghost owl,” connotating the afterlife as well as describing the bird’s plumage. Owls, especially great-horned owls and screech owls, with their visible ear tufts, are troubling characters for many tribal cultures.

“It is their connections with death, the afterlife, and rebirth that truly mark owls as a force to be reckoned with for most tribes,” said Jonathan Holmes, writing on owls in native culture for the website pow-wows.com.

Holmes said, “owls are either considered to be embodied spirits of the dead or associated with such spirits, by a very wide range of tribes, including the Lakota, Omaha, Cheyenne, Fox, Ojibway, Menominee, Cherokee and Creek.”

According to Holmes, “Several of these tribes also have stories of an owl being that stands at a fork in the road in the sky, or the Milky Way, that leads to the land of the dead, letting some souls pass, but condemning others to roam the earth as ghosts forever.

“The Fox tribe also speak of a soul-bridge that leads to the land of the dead. They say that there are two paths at the soul-bridge, one is red, and one is gray. The red path is followed by men, the gray by women. It has been suggested that this is in reference to the two-color phases of the (eastern) screech owl, which are also red and gray.”

The winter I had seen the snowy owl at the top of the headframe of the old mine shaft marked the first of several that a snowy owl appeared there, staying several weeks before all at once vanishing again.

Since those early days of my experience with them, I have seen snowy owls on several occasions. It is always fascinating. So beautiful, so far from home, seemingly so warm no matter how cold it is.

One of those times I think of often was on another late winter afternoon. I hoped to help spot a snowy owl along Lake Superior as a Christmastime gift to a friend who had never been fortunate enough to see one before.

Driving through Founder’s Landing, we found an owl which sat low to the ground on top of a decorative brown light standard. As we looked eye-to-eye at this beautiful being through a spotting scope, many cars passed by in either direction — the owl didn’t move, the drivers continued past without looking.

It makes me wonder how much I might be missing driving around from one place to another, rushing around in the holiday season, running faster and faster, dogging time that always keeps at least one step ahead.

Where am I going, exactly? What do I really know? Will I fly away one day, and if I do, will I return?

The owls indeed seem so much wiser.

Nature has written an intrinsic code for them, an ancient message that guides their paths from the ice-cold Arctic, under the dazzling night stars, gliding across the boreal forests and the great gitchi-gami to a cross atop the headframe of an iron mine shaft all those years ago, igniting a light in the eyes and heart of a school boy.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.