Owl the King’s Men

Crows (Photo: Mary Bailey)

Highway 169 runs up the heart of Minnesota, congesting near the cities, pumping trucks up and down the center of the state. But once you get to Grand Rapids, Highway 169 becomes something entirely different. It stains red and becomes the Official Road of the Iron Range, connecting the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges, cutting through Itasca County, lurching through Hibbing, sprinting past Chisholm and Buhl into Mt. Iron and Virginia. There it changes again, briefly joining Highway 53 before twirling and cavorting its way through the woods up to Ely where it ends with a big, bold period.

To live here in the forests and industrial hamlets of northern Minnesota is to look up at ice cold skies watching contrail streak from the engines of mile-high jet planes. The people fly over us and we resent that, somewhere in our souls, unspoken. That’s why we like birds so much. Birds fly over us, too; northern Minnesota was, after all, a migratory super highway long before 169. But birds stay in our woods, visit our feeders, share songs and give us stories. The old speak of birds constantly. The young scoff, but if they stay long enough they will come to know the birds as ageless friends.

Of all the visiting birds, the owls are most mysterious, most surprisingly graceful, most haunting of call and manner. When the owls come, as they only sometimes do, we report their actions like celebrities. What are they doing? Where are they eating? Did you hear them? Did you see them? Are they mating?

Owls set up around the woods between Virginia and Ely a couple weeks ago. Owls hold no evolutionary response to the likes of us. They exist with bare acknowledgement of humans, and less of their mindless metal chariots. Thus, they are often hit by cars and do not fear people as other birds would.

One owl in particular had proven very photogenic, swooping along busy Highway 169, defying the odds and holding dominion over the outskirts of Tower.

A day came and a young couple driving from Ely came across this famous local owl on the side of the road. Not accustomed to seeing an owl on the ground, fearing it injured, the man walked up to the owl which let him pick it up. It is possible it was dazed from a collision with the car. It is possible that the owl was just abiding, as owls do, in their own way.

What to do? The couple made a choice that would change not only their day, but the day of dozens of trained emergency workers, not to mention the owl’s entire life.

The couple decided to place the owl in the trunk of their car. They then drove the owl to Hibbing, some 70 miles southwest.

We don’t know what the couple talked about on the 75-minute drive to Hibbing with a live owl in their trunk. They must have talked about the owl, sure, but for how long? At some point certainly they must have started talking about something else. Easter, perhaps, or the antics of a friend. You can’t drive that long in March in northern Minnesota thinking solely about the owl in the trunk of your car. You would go mad.

Photo submitted to Hibbing Daily Tribune

They arrived in Hibbing and opened the trunk. The owl, not injured — indeed, never injured — flew directly from the trunk to the branches of a nearby tree.

Consider the plight of this young couple, staring up at the owl they just transported 25 leagues from its home in the trunk of their car. They were carrying an injured owl, but this one showed new signs of life. Do you just … drive away?

And then the crows came.

Groups of crows are called murders, an apt title as this murder began to mob the disoriented owl. Was the owl a perceived threat? Perhaps normally, but the appearance to the growing number of people on the ground was that this injured owl was about to be done in by razor-beaked gang of common loudmouths.

Owl not for HOO the crows CAH, they CAH for thee. And so enters the Hibbing Fire Department.

In the pages of the Hibbing Daily Tribune, this story is recalled as an exercise in ill-suited rescue equipment. The owl, at last skeptical of the situation, now including a slowly approaching mechanized ladder and full dress firefighter, flew off, with crows in pursuit. A local bird expert, upon seeing the owl, determined that the owl was fine.

Except, of course, for being 70 miles away from where it had been, pursued by a murderous gang of crows. But that’s a story for another day.

Marshall Helmberger at the Tower Timberjay says he has a headline waiting. “Owl’s well that ends well.” He will run this headline if the owl returns. And so, we wait. For owl long, we do not know.

Aaron J. Brown is the author of MinnesotaBrown.com and “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.” This tale was pieced together from a story Marshall Helmberger, editor of the Timberjay, told on the Friday, March 29, 2013 Morning Show on Northern Community Radio and in a report in the same day’s Hibbing Daily Tribune. I take some tonal liberties in my retelling, for this now rightly enters the folk canon.

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