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Romeo & Juliet
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It is six o’ clock in the morning. I am busy getting ready to go to work when my phone suddenly rings. I don’t recognise the number, but answer it anyhow as it might be work related. The voice on the other side sounds anxious. “Are you the guy with all the owls?” I give a nod to confirm and then suddenly remember that the person on the other side cannot see me. “Yes, it’s him speaking. How can I help you?” The man introduces himself as Geoff and says: “You’d better come quickly. There is a big bird lying here on the cement floor on our building site. It is still breathing but it looks as if it is about to die. It is so weak that it can’t even lift up its head.”

After a lengthy conversation I managed to get all the details from the man and told him not to allow anyone close to the bird so as not to stress it out any further. From our conversation I could gather that the bird was an owl, but he could not tell me what species. Spotted Eagle Owls are the most common in our area and as he said that it was a big bird, I suspected it to be a Spotty. Big was my surprise when I arrived on the site and found the bird to be a Giant Eagle Owl or sometimes also called a Verroux’s Owl. They are not very common in the Eastern Cape and are normally vagrants in our area.

The bird was lying on the cement floor, too weak to even lift its head. It was a young fledgling and did not even bother to struggle when I picked it up. These birds are huge and have a nasty beak and talons on them and even a juvenile like this could inflict serious wounds if not handled carefully, but this bird was so weak that I did not even bother to put gloves on. It just stared at me with a pair of huge black eyes and allowed me to pick it up and wrap a towel around it. The bird did not look as if it was injured and at first I thought that it was maybe suffering from secondary poisoning. We looked around but could not find a sign of neither the parents, nor the nest. The bird was in such a bad condition that, even if we found the parents or nest, it would not have helped to put it back, so I did not waste much time and decided to take it back home. I left the site with instructions to Geoff to keep a lookout for the parents and to call me in case they showed up.

I rushed the bird home and once again examined it properly. I could find no sign of any physical injury other than that it was completely dehydrated and almost starved to death. I suspected that it somehow got separated from its parents. Being a juvenile it could not fend for itself and most probably roamed around, looking for its parents and food, until it was so weak that it collapsed. It was so weak that I feared that I found it too late and that it was not going to make it.

Starvation is, in essence, the prolonged absence of nutrition and it is sometimes difficult to resist the urge to feed a starved bird with its normal diet, but the bird might use its last available calories to break down any food offered, and might very well die before the resulting energy is available on the cellular level. If the calories to digest that food are not available, the food will sit in the crop or stomach and rot, and might actually result in the bird’s death. For the first couple of hours it is best to rehydrate the bird by making use of electrolyte fluids. Rehydrating the bird slowly and keeping it warm and quiet is essential in the first few days. A lot of birds actually die because of stress and a sick or injured bird must be handled as little as possible.

After three days of rehydrating and fighting for its life, the bird began showing signs of  recovery. It was still very weak, but it began taking notice of its surroundings and I decided that it was time to begin feeding it with some natural food. I took a rat that “Uiltjie” has brought in and cut it up into tiny pieces and soaked it in a special mixture of vitamins, minerals and calcium before feeding it to the bird. I had to open his mouth and push it down his throat, but he responded surprisingly well and began swallowing it, bit by bit. When a bird begins to eat, one tends to over feed it, but it is actually to my mind better to feed it less in one session, but more frequently, so I only gave it about a quarter of the rat to begin with.

Two hours later I went back to see how he was doing and was welcomed by him, lifting his head to greet me with a pair of dark eyes following my every move. I presented him with a piece of rat, but he was still too weak to take it from my hand, though I could see that he wanted to, so I opened up his beak again and fed him another few pieces. I could see that his condition was improving by the hour and this time fed him a little bit more. Two days later his condition was so much improved that he was sitting upright and began begging for food. Goliath, as I called him because of his size, was out of danger. All that he needed now was a lot of natural food and time to recover.

At first “Uiltjie” was not very much impressed with this huge bird. The Verroux’s Eagle Owl or Giant Eagle Owl as we call them is the largest owl species found on the African continent and prey on animals as large as young vervet monkeys. They are especially known for preying on hedgehogs and have a special way of peeling the skin with the sharp quils to get to the flesh of the hedgehog. They are also known to prey on other owls, including Spotted Eagle Owls and I guess that “Uiltjie’s” instinct warned him about this bird. But Goliath was still a baby and all that he was interested in was to be fed. I guess “Uiltjie” soon realised this and, though he was a bit weary of Goliath, it was not long before he arrived with a huge rat that he caught. Goliath was just a fledgeling and still very weak, but I did not want to take a chance and did not allow “Uiltjie” to feed him. I took the rat from him and gave it to Goliath who gulped it down as if it was a tiny morsel of food.

Goliath developed a huge appetite and his condition improved day by day. Despite his size, he turned out to be as gentle as a lamb. He never tried to hurt me or “Uiltjie” and would have made an exceptional pet, but such a magnificent owl was never meant to be held in captivity, so I tried to avoid contact with him as far as possible. It was a difficult decision to make because he was adorable and like so many other rescued birds and animals, he took a special place in my heart. People think that rehabilitating animals are fun, but sometimes it can be very difficult. You get an animal in that is on the brink of death, spend hours nursing it back to health, grow fond of them, and then one day you have to part with them. I know that a lot of people won’t understand it, but it is almost like your child leaving you to go and live in another country. You don’t know whether he will make it and if you will see him again. But then again, the joy of releasing a bird back into the wild, seeing him soaring high above you, doing what he was born to do, is such an experience that I would not have it any other way.

Goliath grew stronger and bigger by the day. “Uiltjie” provided him with some fresh rodents, but could not bring in enough to provide in the needs of this large bird and I had to feed him as well. Goliath was not the first Giant Eagle Owl that I had in my care. A couple of months before this, Dr. Wood from East London sent a juvenile to me to rehabilitate. Because I was afraid that he might catch “Uiltjie” or some of the other owls that we release on our property from time to time, I arranged for him to be released at the well known private game reserve, Shamwari. The resident veterinarian kindly undertook to take him under his wing and to soft release him on their property.

With Goliath I decided to re-introduce him to the area where he was found. About 6 weeks after Goliath entered our lives, he was ready to be released back into the wild again. It was a day of mixed feelings. I was glad that he made it and that he could be released back into the wild again, but I was also sad to part with such a magnificent bird. Like, with so many other birds that we released, I do not know if he made it. All I know is that we had done what we could and that he was given a second chance in life. Maybe he made it; maybe he did not, but at least he was given a fighting chance.

Goliath made a lasting impression on me. I can still see his dark, piercing blue, almost black eyes watching every move that I make, his ruff “hu-hu” piercing the still of the night, his head bobbing up and down when “Uiltjie” came in with a rat. Sometimes I want to kick myself for not keeping this wonderful creature as a pet, but then I picture him in my mind, sitting in a tree, calling to a female to let her know that he brought food to the nest, with two or three little owlets hissing in anticipation, and then I know that it was the right thing to set him free. Maybe one day I will see him again or maybe, one day in the not too distant future, my grandchildren will be lucky enough to show their children one of his offspring in its natural habitat and then they could tell them; “You know what? When we were small kids like you “Grandpa Owl” once helped an owl like this when it was very sick.”




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