Shortly before Christmas, I got a call from Annie Wells of Ashley Street, McComb, reporting an odd sight in her neighborhood — a large white owl.

She hadn’t seen it herself, but her neighbors had.

“He’s white with black spots on his wings,” she said. “He comes up at night.”

It was probably a barn owl, which has a large white face and a white speckled chest and under-wings. At 18 inches tall with a 44-inch wingspan, it certainly qualifies as big.

It could be an albino or leucistic great horned owl, barred owl or some other large species — not impossible since I’ve recently seen a leucistic redtailed hawk in my own area.

There are technically no truly white owl species in Mississippi. The main white owl is the snowy owl, which lives in Canada.

Wells believes it may be a pet.

“I’m pretty sure it’s somebody’s pet because he stays around and he’s a pretty big white owl,” she said. “I haven’t seen any owls flying around here.”

However, barn owls and great horned owls both live in town as well as country, even if you don’t see them much.

Owl encounters

As soon as I got off the phone with Wells, my coworker, Caleb McCluskey, who had overheard me, said, “I’ve got an owl story.” He proceeded to give a fascinating account of a baby owl rescue when he lived in Hattiesburg (see article above).

Owls leave an impression on us. I’ve had many encounters with them over the years, starting in childhood. Each time was mesmerizing, unexpected, and felt like a gift.

A few examples:

• As a child I ran into a barred owl in the woods and shared with it my little-kid Tarzan yell. I did it over and over so it would get to know me. Then, each day when I got home from school, I’d stand in the back yard and holler like Johnny Weissmuller. To my amazement, after a few days the owl actually appeared perched on a power line in my back yard.

• We arrived at church one Sunday to see a small screech owl perched on a hanging light fixture. It was too high to reach so we left it there during the service. It slept through the sermon.

• Canoeing Louisiana’s Whiskey Chitto Creek, Billy Gibson and I paddled into a dark, quiet cypress swamp. Looking up, I saw an owl on a limb, staring down at us with its large, inscrutable eyes. Mystical.

• Canoeing the lower Tangipahoa River, Gibson and I were camped in the woods when barred owls started calling all around us. I whipped out my harmonica and played a tune, and the owls gathered in the trees above us. We had quite a concert.

I also love sitting on the porch at dusk or night and hearing the distant crazy call of barred owls, the spooky deep hoots of a great horned owl, or the eerie whinnying of a screech owl.

Wise as an owl

Owls have always fascinated people. For Christmas, Angelyn gave me a calendar of owl paintings, and they span many cultures and centuries.

Owls are solitary and usually nocturnal. They’re silent, deadly hunters. They can swivel their heads remarkably, watching you as you go by without moving their bodies.

They’ve been seen as a symbol of death and the embodiment of wisdom. We’ve seen a lot of death in 2020. We could use more wisdom in 2021.

I ran across some wisdom earlier this week on my 65th birthday when doing my morning reading in “Because of Calvary: A Year of Daily Devotions” by local minister Charles C. Ray.

Here’s an excerpt from his entry on my birthday:

“I hope that each is able to look to this coming year with great expectations. That we are able to look beyond the pain of our own bodies, beyond the hurt of another’s words, beyond the selfishness of too much gain, beyond the loss of family and friends, beyond the loss of control brought about by aging, and that we will be able to steadfastly focus our lives on the joy of living.”

If we can do that, we’ll be as wise as any owl.

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