Field Note: The Great Horned Owls of Saginaw, Michigan

by Monica Rico | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of Poetry Northwest’s “Life List” feature.

I didn’t choose the great horned owl, my father did. He said when he was a child, an owl would land on his window ledge, and hoot every night. My grandfather worked for General Motors on second shift—from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. He got out of work at the same time the owls were hunting. I never met him or, until recently, seen a great horned owl outside of captivity. So, when I thought of him I pictured an owl. 

He kind of looks like one, in the few photos my father has shared with me. He has large eyes, dark severe eyebrows, and thick hair that refuses to lie perfectly flat. Almost like an owl’s ear tufts. My grandfather was not a caring man, but I grew obsessed with this idea of him leaving work and stopping home to check on his sons before he began his philandering. My father knew his parents didn’t like each other. His father slept upstairs in the attic. He had his own staircase and at least one other family that lived but a street over. 

Sometimes, it seems the pretty birds get all the attention. Hummingbirds, goldfinches, and herons. Growing up in Saginaw it’s almost impossible to miss the poetry of Theodore Roethke, although some do. The one bookstore in town rarely carries his collected works. Whenever I see a great blue heron, I think of him, and how he shifted his weight from foot to foot in a delicate dance when he read. I admit, reading Roethke at seventeen, I had no idea what he was talking about. I had to keep looking up words in the dictionary and browsing through the encyclopedias to find all the birds and plants he was referencing. I thought nature was complicated. I thought everything had been named. 

Owls are hard to find. I’ve had screech owls in my backyard, and from the sounds of them, they couldn’t have been more than a few feet from my doorstep perfectly camouflaged in the pines. I ran across some whitewash last year, but it was only evidence of a night or two spent in my yard, with one corresponding pellet. My grandfather was a private person. He had his compas for sure, but he never really talked to my father about much except the foundry. My grandfather said that the work was hard and my father wouldn’t last; he’d be crying. 

José Rico Sr. came to Saginaw alone, around 1936. My cousin found his apartment address in the Hoyt Library records where he is listed as a foundry worker. At Grey Iron he poured metal at a temperature of 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit into the molds for engine blocks. He flipped the casts all around by hand and was paid twenty-five cents an hour. Because he couldn’t leave until all the iron cooled, he worked twelve-hour shifts. No one does this anymore; it’s all done by a machine. 

It was so hot in the plant, men often passed out, but there was always a fresh group of new recruits ready and waiting to get in. Mexicans were preferred by the foremen because of their supposed ability to withstand the heat. 

I don’t stay up late, but I do wake early. For the past several springs I’ve had nests of crows in my pine trees. This year there were three. I like the crows; they’re social beings, and they fuck a lot. Their sex isn’t beautiful. Like most creatures it appears to be a comedy of errors. The difficulty of pressing two vents against each other leads to a lot of talk and some barking of what I imagine to be you’re doing it wrong

I feed the crows when they’re nesting. Last year they got all my shoddy attempts at sourdough. It takes so long to get that starter strong. This year the crows were shy and didn’t need me as much. They chased my cat whenever he went outside. I could hear them mocking him all the way back to the door. One morning, last spring, it sounded as if all three crow families were in one tree. I stood next to the window to get a better look. Then the crows got loud. Louder than I’ve ever heard them. They were screaming when a great horned owl flew right in front of me. Baby bird in his talons and about fifteen crows mobbing his flight toward the Huron River. He didn’t even look like a bird, but like a torpedo, quick across the ground without a sound. There was no one in my neighborhood who didn’t hear me scream oh my god! OWL! 

This is the part where humans like to distinguish themselves from other animals, as if we are above such cruelty. Not even vegetarians are exempt. The Pioneer/Big Chief Sugar at the Meijer grocery store was harvested from beets that were pulled by the hands of Mexicans who took the same trains out of San Antonio that my grandfather took. One-way tickets to Michigan where jobs were promised, but not what kind. On the Michigan Sugar Company’s Wikipedia page there is a heading for controversy, and I look for mistreatment of laborers or how the company encouraged men to bring their families with them to the fields because a man and his family meant more hands to reap, but only one person to pay. There is mention of a lawsuit, but only in terms of the odor sugar beets produce when being processed; it is listed as offensive. 

I think of my grandfather, dragged from the Plant after passing out from heat exhaustion. The foreman told his compas, if he’s alive, he can come back to work. I wonder how long it took him, to wake up, pull himself together, and go back inside. 

The great horned owl survives.

Monica Rico is a Mexican American CantoMundo Fellow, Macondista, and Hopwood Graduate Poetry Award winner who grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan’s HZWP and works as the Program Manager for the Bear River Writers’ Conference. Her manuscript PINION is the winner of the 2021 Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry selected by Kaveh Akbar. Follow her at