Cherrywood Owl Provides Solace and Enchantment
Art curator Veronica Roberts writes about visiting a feathered neighbor at dusk
By Veronica Roberts
Veronica Roberts is the Blanton Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. An admirer of birds and lover of birdwatching since middle school, Roberts spotted an eastern screech owl in Austin’s Cherrywood neighborhood more than a year ago. She has since named the creature Olive, documented sightings on her Instagram feed (@veronicactx) and brought friends and visitors to see the bird in his perch at dusk. Olive has brought Roberts joy and inspired a fan club amongst her friends and colleagues. After featuring the story of Olive in Tribeza’s January Issue, we asked Roberts to write about how an owl in Cherrywood has become a source of healing and happiness.
The start of 2019 was rough. A friend and beloved curator at the Blanton Museum of Art passed away from cancer right around the holidays. And then someone I cared about ghosted me – my first, and hopefully last, taste of that peculiar pain. I remember bursting into tears as I drove to a friend’s party.
All this sadness fortified my determination to do the Polar Bear Plunge at Barton Springs Pool on New Year’s Day. I wanted to start 2019 with a brave leap. It was so cold in Austin that New Year’s. I remember being slightly envious of a guy dressed in a bear costume. On my way home from the pool, I decided to swing by a corner in Cherrywood to see if the neighborhood eastern screech owl I’d heard about might be out.
It was 4 p.m. or so when I first laid eyes on this diminutive creature filling out the top cavity of a leafless pecan tree. With his feathers puffed out and his eyes closed, he looked like a little Buddha. It helps that his facial disc is the shape of a heart. Olive camouflages so masterfully with the bark, he must feel confident that few people notice him serenely snoozing.
Seeing an owl this close up is exhilarating. I see egrets and herons on walks along Town Lake all the time but the minute they see me take an interest in them, they fly off. And ducks appropriately “duck” and take cover. Not Olive (my eventual name for him). In my binoculars, I often see him cracking one eye open to keep tabs on me, but he never budges from his perch. Of course, I make a point of not getting too close or disturbing him, but how often do we have this intimate an encounter with a wild animal?
That winter came with a series of personal setbacks. Not long after my colleague, Francesca Consagra, passed away and a relationship ended badly, my maternal grandmother, whom I adored, died. I took solace in Olive. When I became interested in birds after a seventh-grade field trip, it was my grandmother who gamely drove me all over the San Francisco Bay Area to look for kingfishers, whimbrels and long-billed curlews with a pair of binoculars my grandfather used in World War II. And after Francesca’s beautiful memorial service, I ran into a few of her out-of-town friends under Olive’s tree. I wasn’t the only one taking solace in Olive.
In addition to healing powers, he seems to be wise. When the guy who ghosted me resurfaced and offered to meet up in person, I suggested we drive to see Olive before we chatted. Olive refused to come out of his hole that evening in uncharacteristic fashion. We must have sat in the car for twenty minutes. At the time, I was sad that he didn’t emerge, but in retrospect, I see it as a testament to Olive’s solidarity.
Throughout that winter, one of the few things that made me feel better was standing under this tree and marveling at this absolutely enchanting bird as I closed out my day and he began his. Olive became a helium balloon of happiness. Watching the reactions of friends, neighbors and passers-by has buoyed me – as has the overwhelming responses to regular posts of Olive I make on Instagram. And things took an exciting turn in February when a second owl appeared in the cavity just below Olive’s. While I never saw any owlets, observing them in their upstairs/downstairs living arrangement in the tree was exhilarating.
It seems fitting that I ended the tumultuous year with an impromptu visit to Olive with a friend I’ve known since kindergarten, visiting with his wife from San Diego. Sean reminded me that Mrs. Terwilliger, a Mary Poppins-like naturalist who took every school kid in the San Francisco Bay Area on nature walks, had once carried two sticks. One was capped with seagull feathers and one with owl feathers. When she waved the seagull stick, the feathers made a swoosh sound. Then she raised the owl-feather stick and we heard nothing. I love that Sean still remembers her lesson about the owl’s gift of silent flight.
Mrs. Terwilliger always used to say that she loved teaching children about nature because “people take care of what they love.” I feel grateful to this eight-inch creature for bringing joy just when I needed it and – in the spirit of Mrs. Terwilliger – I appreciate every opportunity I have had to share him with others.