Barry the barred owl was my mascot when I needed one most. Barry (a “she/her” despite the name,) lived in a hemlock tree in Central Park. We met under less than typical circumstances: I had just sold my business and rented a tiny studio apartment in New York City. It was the middle of the pandemic, I was vaccinated and I needed to get out of dodge. (Dodge being my normal hometown of Atlanta.) For 12+ years, I ran an influencer marketing agency called Everywhere and the pun (social media is um… everywhere) was more accurate than intended. It was my life. I traveled all the time for business and speaking gigs, easily earning my stripes as a Delta platinum flyer for a dozen years running. Once I sold my agency, I achieved the mythical “inbox zero” and for once, I gave myself several months without a single professional commitment. I opted to spend my well-deserved sabbatical in New York, even though the city was a virtual ghost town. Times Square limped along without any Naked Cowboys or creepy Elmo characters trying to give you a dirty hug. There were no commuters clogging the subway. The museums were closed. The lights were out on Broadway. Nail salons shuttered. Some restaurants had fashioned these plywood lean-to structures to serve guests outdoors in the freezing weather. I cooked at home in my tiny galley kitchen. It was in this context, that I began my daily long walks in Central Park.
It was on one of my walks that I encountered Barry. I was wandering really, in the Ramble area of the park. Barry had not yet been discovered, so to speak. I’d like to say I spotted her on my own but I’m no birder. Truth is, I saw two fellow park wanderers pointing excitedly at the branch of a lone tree above the Boat House. I stopped and spotted Barry almost immediately. We locked eyes and I was mesmerized. Barry and I bonded.
Barry was originally “discovered” by two ardent birders in October of 2020. It was not long after that I had my first sighting. After that first day, I made it my daily mission to visit Barry. I truly never missed a day, rain or snow. Barry is a barred owl with intense black eyes, a tiny little yellow beak and feathers that look like swirls of Rocky Road ice cream. In the early months, I was one of her only visitors. I’d stand there, under the hemlock making little coos which Barry completely ignored. If I visited in the morning or mid-day, Barry was basically immobile. She’d occasionally shift position but otherwise, stand languidly in the tree, her talons gripping a branch with ease. Some days she was hard to spot, her feathers blending seamlessly with the wintery bark. Her daytime routine was unremarkable. She must be exhausted, I reasoned. I imagined her up all night, on the town, foraging chipmunks or mice. Late afternoon was when Barry came to life. She’d preen and fluff her feathers. She’d wrench her head, careening 180 degrees to look for… what? Her nemesis the hawk perhaps? Barry was the one truly predictable thing in my life during those long winter months of quarantine.
Before long, Barry was discovered. She was profiled in the New York Times and even had her own Twitter handle which tracked her every move. Despite the public adulation and resultant groupies, she was still my own personal talisman. As long as she was in that hemlock, getting ready for her big night on the town, life would be okay. January 6th rolled around. We managed to elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. The day they were sworn into the Senate, a bunch of Trump Terrorists stormed the Capitol. The unthinkable was happening in this country. Coronavirus wasn’t going anywhere and people were still dying, day after day. The numbers were astounding. There was a coup in Myanmar, a shooting in Indianapolis followed by one in Oklahoma. A big container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal. Through it all, I had a mission to visit Barry and every day she graciously ignored me and strutted her feathers high in a tree.
I began taking New York friends to meet Barry and they too grew infatuated and started making regular treks to Barry’s tree above the boat house. Over time, more and more onlookers heard about Barry and soon there was a daily crowd of several dozen or more under the hemlock. I tuned them out and every so often, was sure that Barry and I locked eyes. She was my constant, the pure unflinching being at the center of this crazy world plagued by Coronavirus and discontent. I loved Barry with every fiber of my being.
Finally, it was time for me to leave New York, to return to Atlanta and head out on a long-planned trip across the United States in my little red camper. Covid was waning and the mask mandate was fading. I went to say good-bye to Barry one day in late April. It was close to sunset and a crowd of over 100 were gathered, clicking photos, and clucking at her every move. I know Barry abhorred the attention but who was I to cast aspersion on fellow fans. Like clockwork, just before the sun fully set in the sky, Barry began her fabulous migration into the wilds of Central Park. She preened and elegantly fluffed her feathers. Then just as the light was waning, Barry lifted her wings dramatically and whoosh, off she went. The crowd gasped and ran after Barry. I said a silent good-bye and over the next few months, kept in touch with my fine-feathered friend through social media posts. She was still there.
In August of this year, the unimaginable happened. It was 2:30 am, Barry was on the prowl and swooped so low that she collided with a Central Park Conservancy vehicle. The autopsy showed blunt force trauma to the head. I was far away when I heard the news and felt sadness in the core of my being. I took a long walk, deep in the woods, looking everywhere for an owl with which to commune. It was utterly foolish, I know. Owls don’t come out in the daytime, the way Barry did.
It’s now a few months after Barry’s demise and I’m back in New York. Recent news reports have come out indicating that Barry had a lethal dose of rat poison in her system. Perhaps she ingested a doused vermin? All of this may have impacted her flying ability and explain the collision. I have not gone to the bramble or to Barry’s favorite hemlock. I just can’t. I can, however, hold on to my memories of Barry during the pandemic and the constancy of her regal being in Central Park.
*Note: I found these photos on Barry’s Twitter feed. The photographer was not credited. If you know the photographer, I’m happy to both credit them and get their permission to use these images.