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The Eyes Have It! 

My friend, Owl, made me realize the importance of eyesight

Owl came into my life when I was living at what is now Hollinshead Park on Jones Road. Late one afternoon, the phone rang. "Is this Jim Anderson who knows about birds?," the caller asked.

I said I knew a little about birds, why?

"I'm a logger, and got this bird that fell out of a nest when I dropped a big pine today out near the Ochoco Ranger Station. What do I feed it?"

I asked how big it was and what it looked like.

"It looks look a tennis ball with big yellow eyes and long legs."

I thought about that for a minute and replied, "It's probably a baby great horned owl. You have to go out and get a gopher, chew it up and then spit it out and feed it to the owl," I replied with a chuckle.

About an hour later a pickup pulled into the yard. I invited the logger in. He handed me the box and said, "Here, mother."

I opened the box, looked in, and said, "Yep, by golly, it's a baby great horned owl."

"Look in the box," the logger said. In one corner was some fur. I picked it up and couldn't believe my eyes; it was a gopher! The logger grinned at me, "I wanna watch you do it."

Next to my right arm stood the whirligig food grinder, plugged in and ready to go; I dropped the gopher in and hit the switch.

When the blades stopped turning, I used my finger to scrape some of the gopher goop off the inside, pried open the owl's gaping maw and shoved the stuff in. It immediately squeaked, asking for more.

"OK," the logger said, "he's in good hands."

"Owl" entertained thousands of teachers and students, adults in service clubs, including the Portland City Club, garden clubs and, one day, caused a guy to fall off the ladder he was using to refuel my Cub in Roseburg. He noticed Owl perched on the backseat and shouted, "That ------ owl is alive!"

Owl was often perched on the back of the passenger seat as I drove. Owl loved to travel, and never missed a bird, dog or cat around us, even at 60 mph. One bright morning, we were just about to cross the Siletz River Bridge south of Lincoln City on our way to give a talk at Salashan.

Great horned owls have large forward-facing eyes, and flat face, with a conspicuous circle of feathers around each eye. Most birds of prey have eyes on the sides of their heads; not owls—the stereoscopic vision of forward-facing eyes permits a greater depth perception that helps low-light hunting.

A great horned owl's eyes are locked tight in a frame of bone and cannot move, but the owl can rotate its head and neck as much as 270 degrees. The fable about owls not being able to see in daylight is baloney; not only can they see, but do so about 20-times better than we do. And that day I got a wonderful example of that ability.

Just as we were about to pull up on the bridge over the Siletz River, Owl threw up his wings and about jumped out of the car. I pulled over on the bridge and hit the breaks. Owl was nearly standing on his toes, staring at something ahead of us. A car went whizzing by, blowing his horn at us, but didn't break Owl's concentration; he stood stock still, all his feathers tucked in tight, horns raised straight up on both sides of his head.

I slowly inched forward off the bridge, pulled over and sat watching Owl. It was obvious he was seeing something I couldn't, so I got my binocs off the back seat and started searching the sky in the direction he was staring. It took me a while, but suddenly I saw a spot in the sky, focused onto it, and discovered an adult bald eagle over a half-mile off, headed our way.

Owl, perched there on the back of the front seat as we drove along, bumping up and down, casually watching the world and the many gulls go by, suddenly spotted that eagle — a raptor that can (and probably has) cause great harm to owls, and he did it over a half-mile away.

We both watched as the eagle flew toward us, and the closer it came the more agitated Owl became. He began talking to himself in a low, chortling sound; he stood straighter on the seat, his body getting thinner as he tucked his feathers tight against his body. His eyes opened wider, and his horns seemed to grow longer and thinner. I think he was trying to look like a broken tree branch.

The eagle was now visible without binocs and was dropping down to fly low over the bay. A bunch of ducks flew up to get out of harm's way, joined by a great blue heron. Then, suddenly, the eagle swopped low over the water and snatched a fish out of the bay. I thought Owl was going to have a heart attack.

Then the eagle flew directly at us. At that moment, Owl let out a bark and grabbed the back of the seat in his talons tightly. The eagle went zooming by. I could almost hear Owl wheeze in the relief. It was at that moment I was aware of two things; the incredible eyesight of owls, and a new eagle nest on the Siletz River.

I'm pushing 86 now, and my eyesight has been dimming. A little while back, I visited a local ophthalmologist, Dr. Patricia Buehler, who said it was a cataract and if I wanted my vision back to 20/20, it had to go. She did the job in about 10 minutes, but I had to be put under. Last week, she did the other eye, but this time in five minutes.

Now, I am enjoying 20/20 vision in both eyes. I can use my spotting scope, camera and hand lens to watch for eagles, shoot photos and identify spiders. And it was my old pal, Owl, who helped me realize the great blessing of vision, something I shall never take for granted.

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