Monday, August 07, 2006

Fatal nocturnal liaison

I saw an owl while riding home Thursday night. I heard a flutter on the bike path ahead of me, so I grabbed for the brakes. Looking up, I saw, suspended in the air in front of my bicycle, a dead white rat, dangling from a grey-brown blur. Despite its lack of vitality, the bloody rat corpse bobbed and weaved through the air in front of me, before slowly rising into a nearby willow tree on the shore of the lake. I stopped the bike, watched the white blur of the rat in the moonlight until it came to a stop in the upper branches, then shone my cycling light into the tree where the rat had come to rest. Staring back at me with big golden eyes was an owl, which had coalesced from the blur that I had previously spotted. Very cool.

The owl was very owl-colored and owl looking, about the size of a sulphur-crested cockatoo (with a bigger-looking head, of course), or maybe half the size of the American great horned owl. It made no calls or hoots, and I quickly turned my light away so as not to damage its night vision. Having spotted the owl, I was content to continue on my way, as I figured that further interaction would keep the owl from its dinner, and I did not want to be rude.

Being in an excitable state of mind as a result of the Bunsen Burner triumph, I started wondering about the provenance of the white dinner rat. A few months back, at a biologist’s dinner party, I talked to a guy from the medical school who genetically engineered white mice for medical experiments. One of the things he complained about was the density of paperwork surrounding the tracking and disposal of his charges, compared with, say, the mousetraps- or the cat- at home. It’s absurd,” he said, “These mice are so inbred that they could never survive in the wild.” Had I just witnessed a confirmation of this hypothesis?

In nature, white rats are not common, for reasons of natural selection such as the one that I observed. So perhaps this rat was a laboratory escapee. The medical school was only a kilometer away, and perhaps the genetic engineering created a rat capable of tunneling under, or swimming across Sullies Creek.

If so, then perhaps this owl would be subjected to inter-species genetic transfer, and become a super-raptor. Perhaps next week, I would see it shooting rats with laser beams from its eyes. Perhaps the week after it would be glowing green in the darkness, and a fortnight after that it would have immunity to rat poison, DDT, and other high foodchain toxins.

Then I realized that it was mice, not rats that they engineered, so none of that was possible. Thus, the rat I saw was probably either snake-food that thought it had escaped its fate, or some urban hipster’s fru-fru pet. Either way, I hope the bird enjoyed its dinner.


Jul said...

What, no pictures?

C W Magee said...

Surprisingly, I don't often carry a camera when riding around in the dark. And even if I did, getting the exposure right would be a nghtmare, and I would need to have loaded very high speed film beforehand...