Country diary: Barn owls make the best listeners | Anita Roy

Smeatharpe, Devon: Pristine plumage, with a beak like rose marble – to be so close to this bird is astonishing

I’m jittery. It’s always a bit nerve-racking going to see a new therapist; in this case, especially so. I hope he doesn’t bite. I drive down a bumpy country lane and past a barn to park next to a large white van. “Animal assisted therapy with birds of prey” is written on the side. Karen Stead-Dexter is standing with the back doors open. Inside the van are several large black boxes. Some of them screech. We talk a little about which bird will be leading the session today and put on our leather gloves.

“This is George,” she says, then she eases the catch open and brings out a barn owl. First impression – well, to be honest, first, second, third and constant impression – is astonishment. He is absolutely beautiful. Pristine snow-white breast, pink-tinged beak translucent as rose marble, the distinctive heart-shaped disc of his face, his back and wings mottled with gold-brown flecks. Every feather uniquely suited to its function and place. He peers around with his dark brown eyes. Karen explains that owls’ eyesight is actually quite bad and, unlike ours, their eyes are affixed to the skull so they can only look around by turning the head. As though to concur, George executes a perfect Bharat Natyam-style side-to-side neck wobble.

We walk through a field of shin-high shaggy inkcaps, me with an owl on my arm, and into the woods. Beech nuts crunch beneath our feet, a flock of long-tailed tits chitter in the branches overhead, the wind sighs and leaves rustles. The ears of a barn owl, hidden deep in the dense, soft feathers either side of its head, are slightly skewwhiff, with one higher than the other; this enables the bird to pinpoint prey in the half-light of dusk and dawn when they hunt.

I talk about how my city-damaged hearing has contributed to my sense of isolation, disconnection and loneliness. George listens, the soft rise and fall of human voices just another sound to be taken in. Enraptured, I lower my defences and allow the wide, wild world to flood in. Magic.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Anita Roy

The GuardianTramp

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