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  • Valerie Brooke, MD

Spreading Wings

The hoo hoodoo hoooo hoo woke me up in the early morning hours. It was just after 4 am. My alarm would go off soon anyway, so I dragged myself out of bed. I had only lived next to the wetland for just over a year and had heard the call of an owl maybe once or twice, but never sounding so close. I went over to the patio door, quietly opened it, and listened. Hoo hoodoo hooo hoo, so loud it was as if the bird were right in my backyard! It was too dark to see anything yet; and though it was still winter cold outside, I left the patio door open so that I could hear the gentle hooting as I started my day.


My days always start with a cup of coffee, followed by writing. This is the best time for me to write. It’s when my brain tank of gas is full, and my ego hasn’t yet woken up enough to stop the creative flow. It’s similar to what I tell my stroke patients regarding their impairments: their function is usually best in the morning, when they are refreshed. It’s completely normal to have their weakness or slurred speech or trouble concentrating get worse as the day progresses, as their tank empties. But this morning my tank was quite full after a good night’s sleep; with the added bonus of background hooting, I was off to a great day.


After my morning pages of writing and as the sun started to peak over the still mountains, I went outside to fill the bird feeders. From my writing desk I had seen the goldfinches and quails searching for any stray leftover seeds that were still on the ground underneath the empty feeders. Although it was only 32 degrees out, I went outside without my coat, hat, or gloves, still in my pajamas, thinking I would quickly fill up the feeders and scoot back inside to warm up in the shower. As I started to pour the nuts and seeds into one of the feeders, I again heard the owl call. I looked up and with utter astonishment, could not believe what I was seeing. There were one, two, three Great Horned Owls in the tree next to our yard! The two larger ones were on the higher branches, roosting with confidence, looking straight at me, without blinking. Several feet below was a smaller fluffy owl, struggling to keep herself upright on a branch.


I tiptoed quietly over to the kitchen door and whispered to my husband to grab me the binoculars. I slowly returned to my spot on the patio and sat down on the cold, hard bricks. I watched the three owls for a long time as my fingers froze holding the binoculars. I was amazed at how human the owls looked with their large yellow eyes, peering at me as as though into my soul. The way they swiveled their necks around to look at walkers or runners on the wetland path, turning almost one hundred and eighty degrees, was something I had read about, but had never actually seen. The younger owl with downy gray feathers was trying to gain purchase on a limb but mostly falling onto the lower branches, throwing out its wings to regain balance until eventually settling into a spot that was supportive and safe.


I have been blessed to be in the company of these three owls for many days now, and I have had the pleasure of watching the owlet become more adventurous. The second day she had moved from the deciduous tree, still empty of spring leaves, over to the pine tree, that was even closer to my house. She was getting stronger and braver. More confident. Yesterday I saw her on the top of the neighbor’s house. She was definitely using her wings, going a little bit further each day. Soon, I imagine, she will be off to find her own locale, her own mate, and may someday be a parent herself.


The process of seeing this young owl stretch itself reminds me of training to become a physician. I have medical students who work with me from time to time and are just like that fledgling owl, learning how to fly and fend for themselves. I remember how frightening and exciting it was to be a medical student, then a resident, and now an attending. I always encourage my students to accept where they are right now, point A, right next to the nest and close to the trunk and not to compare themselves to others who are farther down the path of training, which is just what physicians do. It’s how we’re wired and likely how we got through the arduous training process. Like the baby Great Horned Owl, if we relax into the process, move from branch to branch, tree to tree, we will slowly grow wise, leave the nest of education, and fly out into our own practice of medicine.

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