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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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The Owl Man

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Irv Kassoy was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1904, and two years later his family immigrated to the United States, where they lived in New York City, "four stories up, in the rear," he would jokingly say.

I first got to know Irv in the early 50s when he and his wife moved to Columbus.

For several years while in New York, he worked for a Manhattan jeweler's firm, selling diamond rings and Swiss watches, perhaps hoping to fulfill the American Dream, make it big, make a lot of money and live the good life. It didn't work out that way. However, he did serve in the Armed Forces of the United States during World War II, and somewhere along the way he learned how to live the good life: he developed an interest in birds, especially owls, more specifically, barn owls.

He became a member of the Bronx County Bird Club, a group of young men, ardent ornithologists all, who had once even questioned the birding qualifications of Roger Tory Peterson before admitting him to membership. There were nine charter members of the club, which included such well-known names as Allan Cruickshank and Joseph Hickey. Peterson survived the one-upmanship, of course, and not only was elected into membership but became the club's most famous alumnus.

In his book, "Birds Over America," Peterson describes going with Irv one evening to the old Huntington mansion on Pelham Bay which in recent years had become part of the park system. Irv had access to a key to the house.. On the third floor of that deserted old mansion he had been observing a family of barn owls. He had pushed a large cardboard box with a glass top up against a ventilator hole through which the birds gained entry. A tiny battery-powered light within the box enabled them to see five owlets huddled inside.

Irv spent over 200 nights by himself hunched over that box, "like some immobile Buddha," observing the comings and goings of the parent birds; their feeding of the young, their housekeeping habits, even their love making.

In that spooky place, waiting for owls to appear who had more than a passing resemblance to ghosts, Kassoy had plenty of time to think about life, and death. Sometimes when the parent birds were out hunting, it was hard for him to stay awake. Sometimes it was hard to separate the world of the owls from his own world, fact from fiction, reality from dreams.

One night he awoke with a start when he thought he heard a downstairs door open, then slam shut. He knew no one else had a key. He heard heavy, deliberate footsteps that stopped just below the trapdoor that led up to his observation post. The hair on Irv's head stood on end.

Just then he heard the characteristic scream of the adult owls somewhere in the darkness outside. Then one of them swooped down and made its way through the ventilator and into the nesting box, a mouse dangling from its beak, He forgot all about the possibility of human intruders, or otherwise.

Irv never quite made up his mind after that night whether he had been dreaming or whether someone had actually entered the house. The caretaker, who lived nearby, believed the house was haunted. Maybe that was the answer.

Irk kept copious notes on the barn owl families he so devotedly observed. Even after he moved to Columbus, he worked on this material, hoping that someday he could develop it into a definitive study of the barn owl. For one reason or another, it was not to be.

In Columbus, Irv had his own upholstery business. He became active in local birding circles, took part in numerous Christmas Bird Counts, and in the process discovered the Ross-Pickaway County Line Road, famous over the years for wintering hawks, occasional short-eared owls, and numerous other birding attractions. The area drew him like a magnet.

Toward the end of his life, Irv suffered from emphysema which became ever more acute because of his inability to give up cigarettes. He died in Cape Coral, Florida on April 6, 1978 and his ashes were sent to Columbus where they were scattered at a spot along County Line Road by Don Smith and Ernie Limes.

Don Smith said that while they were engaged in that sad task, "three red-tailed hawks circled over the area and flew off to the hills to the south as if in salute and farewell.

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