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Death is a lesson, struggle

With the word "murder" in the subject box, the email was guaranteed to catch my attention.

"A gruesome murder took place with the victim literally falling from the sky into our yard," it read. "It was a crime — a senseless killing. Who could do such a stupid, nasty thing?

"Someone shot a great horned owl which lingered for a while on a tree branch, then fell, crumpled, and died," it added.

The message was from friends Harvey and Liz Koester, who live on Britt Avenue immediately west of the Medford city limits. It's a nice, quiet neighborhood where neighbors greet each other on a first-name basis.

I've known the Koesters for about 20 years. They are kind, pleasant folks who treat others with respect and courtesy. He is a retired forester; she worked at the Southern Oregon Historical Society museum in Jacksonville for many years.

After finding the bird in their backyard a week ago today, they checked with an Oregon State Police game officer and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much the agencies could do, even though it is illegal to kill a bird of prey, Harvey says.

"There was no hard evidence about what happened," he says. "They were concerned, of course, but there just wasn't anything they could do at that point."

But the couple, who have since buried the owl, a species illegal to possess without a special permit, don't want the death to go unnoticed.

"This has never happened here before," she says. "We've seen owls around here lots of times. We really enjoy them. They fly into our trees a lot."

That would be the conifers Harvey planted as seedlings shortly after they moved into their house 35 years ago. The tall trees now form a beautiful woody screen on the northwest side of their half-acre parcel.

The attractive rural subdivision was carved out of agricultural land more than half a century ago. Their ranch-style house was the second to last built in the area when it was constructed in 1971.

Married for nearly 45 years, the couple raised their two sons there. One son is a pharmacist, the other a builder. Each son now has two sons.

Before disposing of the bird, the grandparents showed it to their grandchildren as one of life's lessons. They would have rather showed them a live bird as part of a study in nature.

"When it happened, I was over here hanging up my wash," Liz recalls, noting this was about noon on Feb. 10. "There were a couple of jays making an awful lot of noise. It was really irritating. So I went over to see what the heck was going on."

She looked up to see a dark mass huddled on a large limb of a big pine tree some 25 feet above the ground.

"It wasn't perched on the limb," Harvey interjects. "It had collapsed on the limb. It was still alive but as we watched it, one wing drooped downward, then the other, as though it was losing more and more of its energy."

Liz walked around under the tree, taking several photographs of the large owl.

"His head was kind of down," she says. "Then his eyes opened up and he tucked his wings in. I thought maybe he was OK. He was so beautiful. His tufts were standing up.

"But when I turned away I heard a kind of swish and bonk," she adds. "It had fallen off the limb and hit our (utility) trailer."

"I think it fell and tried to fly," Harvey says. "It landed on the ground. It finally fell over. Not long after that we went up to it. It had stopped breathing."

When she gently lifted up a wing she could see bright red blood on its chest.

"He must have been flying when somebody shot him — his wing must have been up," she surmises. "But we didn't hear any shots."

"Maybe it was shot a distance away and flew over here," he says.

Or perhaps it was shot with a pellet gun, which makes very little sound.

The Koesters worry it was one of a pair they have seen in the area in recent years. They have found the regurgitated pellets of bones and hair the owls expel after eating a rodent.

"There are some big trees here for them to roost on," he says. "There is plenty of food — mice, rats and rabbits."

Now one of the majestic birds that flew silently through the night has been killed.

"The real question is why someone did this," he says. "Was someone bored and needed something to do? Was it for fun? Was it bothering someone?"

"It's just so sad," Liz said.

The Koesters know one thing for sure about this murder mystery: It was a stupid, senseless crime.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.