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THE CARING OWL:  CHAPTER 7:-  A MIRACULOUS RECOVERY

I now had an owl living permanently in my living room. The first few weeks it was almost like having a new baby in the house. I had to basically do everything for “Uiltjie”;  get up a couple of times in the middle of the night to feed him, help him to do his thing when nature called, clean him up afterwards etc. The only difference between him and a baby was that fortunately he did not cry like one. I did not mind doing these things for him, because he really was like a child to me and I could see the love and gratitude in his large yellow eyes every time that I fed him or helped him with something.

“Uiltjie” now began with the long and painful road to recovery, getting better and stronger day by day.(or is it maybe night by night for an owl). After a few weeks he managed to get up onto his healthy leg all by himself, hopping from one place to the other, balancing himself on his wings, sometimes falling head first onto the floor when he went to fast. Sometimes he would then lie outstretched on the floor, looking around so as if to see if anybody saw him fall and sometimes I could believe that he actually felt sorry for himself, not understanding why he could not walk or fly anymore and why he had so much pain. His efforts sometimes were actually quite humoristic and I could not keep myself from laughing at him. This is when I actually began to realise that an owl can actually have feelings like a human being. He did not like it very much when I laughed at him and would then turn his head away from me and sit like that for a couple of minutes, just like a naughty child with that “I am feeling sorry for myself” expression on his face. It was times like this, that my heart went out to him, that I just wanted to pick him up and hold him in my arms and tell him that I love him, but unfortunately an owl is not the kind of animal that actually like being picked up and cuddled. Because of his injuries it was also not a good thing to handle him unnecessarily, so I normally refrained from doing so and just told him that I loved him and I think that he actually understood me.

Round about the beginning of the third month “Uiltjie” began flapping his wings, sometimes managing to lift himself a couple of inches off the ground. He also began moving his injured leg, although he still could not put any weight onto it.  This was a very good sign and reminded me of myself when I injured my back. There was hope in my heart for “Uiltjie”. Just like I once recovered against all odds, “Uiltjie” now seemed to be well on his way to a miraculous recovery too.

But having a fully grown Spotted Eagle Owl living permanently in your house is not always moonshine and roses. It comes at a price. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to house train or potty train an owl and now that “Uiltjie” was beginning to move around, he sometimes made a mess where it was not easy to clean up. An owl also sheds quite a lot of feathers, but the main problem was providing enough natural food for him. I did not want him to fall back into the bad habit of eating steak only and again asked all my workers to pick up dead birds in the road and began taking rodents away from our cats again like I did when I first taught him what his natural food was. Because of his back injury he could not swallow large pieces of food. His injuries did not allow him to tear up his own food and I had to cut all his food into small pieces, a not to pleasant task at best.

Most people would ask, but why did I not put him outside in an aviary? My answer to that is that “Uiltjie” is not the kind of bird that you can put inside a cage or an aviary. I have seen it when I tried to match him up with a female owl and have sworn never to do it again. I don’t know if it maybe has got something to do with his childhood or something that happened in his past, but “Uiltjie” is not a bird that adapts to life in a cage. He was happy inside the house and for some reason or the other did not associate it with being held captive and the pleasure of having him there outweighed all the other not so pleasant things.

In the fourth month “Uiltjie” began putting weight onto his injured leg and managed to hobble around on it. It was still pretty much useless, but was definitely showing signs of healing. His back injury also seemed to be improving by the day and he could now fly from the floor up onto the lounge suite or the table. I could see that he was still enduring much pain and that his leg bothered him quite a lot. He could not put weight on it for more than a couple of minutes and kept on moving it up and down, as if he was exercising it.

As “Uiltjie” improved, he began taking notice of things in the room and I learned that owls are very inquisitive creatures and that they form a map of their surroundings in their brain. If any new object was brought into the room, he would notice it immediately and would go and inspect it. At that stage I did quite a lot of work on computers and there were normally a few open cardboard boxes standing around in the room. “Uiltjie” loved to play with these boxes and would jump into them, topple them over and nibble on them. And when he eventually got tired of playing with the box, he would go and sleep inside it for an hour or so. I had to send many a customer’s computer back in a different box, because he ruined the original one, but once I told them what happened, none of them complained about it, in fact they all were very inquisitive about this owl living inside my house.

“Uiltjie’s” condition was now improving drastically and he began flying around in the room from one corner to the other. I put up special perches for him in each corner of the room, with a board underneath it so that his pooh would fall onto newspapers that I put on top of these boards. This made it easy to clean up his mess every day. He was now sort of beginning to become house trained and very seldom made a mess anywhere else in the room. Now that he could fly short distances, his favourite thing was to come and sit on top of my computer screen whenever I was working on the computer. Apart from wanting to be close to me, I think the heat dissipated by the screen attracted him and was helpful in easing the pain in his injured leg. At first I was worried that he would make a mess on my computer screen, but it seemed as if he knew how to behave himself and very seldom had an accident. I decided that pooh can always be cleaned up and if it comes to the worst I could always buy a new screen, but those moments that I shared with him, sitting there on my screen, could never be bought with money and are embedded in my memory for ever. Sometimes, if I was busy and did not take notice of him, he would jump down onto my keyboard and hands. It happened quite a couple of times that he jumped onto the delete button and deleted all my work with one keystroke and then I had to retype everything. I soon learned to set my auto save to a few minutes, so as not to lose too much work in case something like this happened. These are moments that I would treasure for the rest of my life.

  

There is a common belief that owls, almost like vampires, love the dark and that they do not like sunlight. Regarding Spotted Eagle Owls, there is nothing further from the truth than this. During his recovery I noticed that “Uiltjie” actually loved sunlight and learned that they, like most animals and people, actually need at least two hours a day of it to stay healthy. He would go and sit in the sun, wings outstretched, sometimes for a couple of hours, especially in the mornings. I found this a common thing, even with wild Spotted Eagle Owls. When I began rehabilitating them, I soon learned that they would spend the early mornings basking in the sun, often sitting on the ground. They would do this sometimes for up to 3 hours before looking up their favourite roosting spot to sleep, until about an hour before sundown, when they would normally fly down to the ground again.

There is also a common believe that owls cannot see well during the daytime. This is definitely not true. In actual fact they have excellent vision during daytime, much better than humans can ever hope to have. Owls have what is commonly referred to as “binocular vision” and can see and recognise objects at quite large distances. They however cannot see very well close to them and I realised this for the first time when I was holding small pieces of food in my hand for “Uiltjie”. I noticed that he would sometimes miss the food in my hand when he tried to pick it up and at first I was worried that his sight was maybe affected by his injuries. I began reading up on the internet and then found that this is actually quite normal and that they cannot clearly distinguish objects very close to them. I also experienced firsthand how well they can see over long distances during daytime.

After “Uiltjie” was injured, he began showing strange behaviour whenever our gardener, a local Xhosa man, was in the vicinity. He was in fact terrified of him and would go and crouch away in a corner as soon as he saw him. We later on found that he was actually terrified of all Xhosa men. He however was not particularly afraid of Xhosa women and did not show the same signs of being scared to death when they were close by. I now had an owl that was either a racist, or something must have happened to make him so terrified of all black men. I know for a fact that our gardener did not harm him at any stage and before he was injured he was not afraid of him at all. This made me believe that his injury was maybe caused by a black male person or persons or that he had a nasty experience with them after he was injured, during the seven days that he was missing. I know for a fact that there is a group of local Xhosa men that frequently hunt with their dogs in the area where “Uiltjie’s” favourite hunting grounds are, and I suspect that they came upon him after he was injured and maybe tried to catch him or even threw him with stones etc, trying to kill him as the local people are still very superstitious about owls. We unfortunately will never know what exactly happened to him, but fact remains that after he was injured, “Uiltjie” was terrified of all black men.

But coming back to my story of their fantastic vision during daytime; It was in the 6th month after “Uiltjie” got injured. He was sitting on the balcony in the sun on his favourite stepladder that I put there for him. I was busy working at my computer when I saw him rushing in through the open patio door. He immediately went to sit above my head in the corner, crouching away and looking terrified. By now I knew that if he behaved like this, that our gardener, Elvis, was somewhere in the vicinity. I got up to close the patio door and looked outside to see what Elvis was doing in the garden, because he was actually supposed to do some repairs to our fence line that day. I looked outside, but there was nobody in the vicinity.  “Uiltjie” was however still crouching in the corner, staring straight out of the window, looking absolutely terrified. I looked again to see what was scaring him, but could not see anything at all. I then went to get my binoculars and combed the area towards where he was staring and believe it or not, there I saw Elvis working on the fence line about 500 meters from the house, between the bushes. Not only did “Uiltjie” saw him, but he recognised him. I could barely recognise him with the aid of the binoculars, but yet “Uiltjie” did so with his bare eyes, proving that owls can see much better than a human being and that he can do so even during the daytime. I honestly do not know if he actually recognised him as Elvis, or just as a black male person, but fact remains that he could see him and I could not.

While owls are known for their remarkable sight at night, their most remarkable sense is actually their hearing. While “Uiltjie” was living in the house I had the opportunity of closely observing his senses. Though I had no means of measuring it, I could see that his hearing was much more acute than that of our dogs and cats. He would hear a vehicle approaching long before the dogs would and don’t think that you could creep up onto him and surprise him, no he would hear you long before you got close to him. According to scientists, an owl can sit on a telephone pole and hear the heartbeat of a mouse on the ground without any difficulty. And here we humans are talking about “Superman”. What about “Super Owl”?  And they can fly too! This super hearing created a bit of a problem for me. Although I believe that owls can actually block out certain noises, I did not want to take a chance on damaging “Uiltjie’s” hearing and as a result, watching TV and listening to the radio in the living room, was a bit of a problem. The volume always had to be turned down to a very low level. Fortunately none of our family is big TV fans, most probably because we just don’t have the time to spend doing nothing in front of a TV set, and the only time that it really caused problems was when we had visitors and they wanted to watch their favourite programs.

After almost six months, “Uiltjie” was almost fully recovered. He was not the magnificent bird that he used to be, but he was alive and he was able to walk and to fly short distances. His small body was contorted a little bit because of his back injury and his leg was still giving him problems, but the owl that was sentenced to death, managed to defy everybody. “Uiltjie” made a miraculous recovery and proved to be a real fighter. All the sacrifices that I had to make seemed like nothing compared to the love and joy that this owl brought to us as a family and if I was asked to do it over again I would not hesitate to do it again, not even for one single second.

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THE CARING OWL:  CHAPTER 8:- FREE AGAIN

Now that “Uiltjie” was beginning to get better, he provided us with a lot of entertainment. One evening my granddaughter, she was about four years old then, were playing in the room with all her toys. Needless to say, they were all animal toys like “My Little Ponies” etc. One of the soft toys that she was playing with was a stuffed green mouse. It had a string that you could pull to make it wriggle so that it looked as if it was alive. “Uiltjie” was sitting in the one corner, on top of one of his perches, and was watching her closely. I jokingly warned her that he was going to catch her animals, never actually thinking that he would really do so. The next moment he swooped down from his perch and grabbed this green stuffed mouse and, much to her dismay, flew away with it. He went and sat on top of an old computer screen that was standing on top of a shelf and began examining this strange mouse.

I approached him, but he did not want to give up his prey and flew to the other corner of the room with it. Needless to say that she was not very happy with him and began crying over her mouse. It took me almost half an hour to convince him to give it up, which he eventually did, but very reluctantly. It was quite interesting that he picked this stuffed mouse out of about 30 other toy animals. It did not look much like a mouse or rat to me, but yet it must have looked familiar to him. I do not know whether it was sheer co-incidence, or whether he really actually thought that it was a mouse.

It was also during this time that I learnt that Spotted Eagle Owls are actually very fond of water and that they will, if they get the chance, take a bath and then go and sit in the sun to dry. There is a belief that owls generally do not drink water and that they get the necessary moisture from the prey that they eat. “Uiltjie” however loved to drink water whenever he took a bath, which was about twice a week. Under normal conditions an owl can go without water for up to a couple of months, but if they get the chance they will definitely drink some water and when held in captivity, one must provide some fresh water for them to drink and to bathe in.

My wife has an old yellow cupboard that belonged to her father that she put next to our bed after he died. He used to keep all the small items that were dear to him and that he collected during the years, in this cupboard and, though the cupboard itself was a piece of junk, it had very strong sentimental value to her, so it ended up next to our bed. One evening I was filling up “Uiltjie’s” plastic bowl with water and on my way from the bathroom to the “Owl Room”, my cell phone rang. I put the bowl of water on top of this cupboard to answer and forgot it there. That morning, round about three ‘o clock, we woke up. “Uiltjie” had seen his bowl of water through the open door and decided that it was time for him to take a bath and for us to take a shower. He splashed around in the water, sending it in all directions and needless to say, my wife was not very happy with me for leaving the bowl of water on the cupboard. It was winter, it was cold and being wakened by a shower of cold water was definitely not what she had in mind.

This reminds me of something that happened years ago. It’s got nothing to do with owls, but I am going to tell it anyhow. When my children were young, we used to have a lot of sports playing tricks on one another with water, especially in the winter when it was cold. I was normally the one to begin with it, but the children always got the upper hand, most probably because they all worked together against me. The story begins on a very cold winter’s evening. My son, Jaco, was taking a bath. I was busy going through a box full of old junk, looking for something. In the box were a couple of very large syringes and I decided that it was time to play a dirty trick on him. I filled the syringe with ice cold water and aimed it at his back through the key hole of the bath room door. The icy water hit him full in the back and he uttered a few words that I can definitely not repeat here. I think that even the devil took a few notes, because I am sure there were words spoken that even he has never heard of. My son told me that I might have won the battle, but he will win the war. I can still remember him telling me that he don’t get even, he gets ahead.

Anyhow, for the next couple of days I knew that something was coming and I was very careful to lock the bath room door and to hang a towel in front of the key hole. A few days later my little daughter, about four years old at that stage, knocked on the door and said that she couldn’t hold it anymore and that she had to come in. Like a fool, I suspected nothing, got out of the bath, put my short pants on and opened up the door for her. As I opened the door a stream of ice cold water hit me, first in the face and then on my bare chest. I gasped for air. The water was not cold, it was icy and it kept coming. This was no squirt from a syringe. The little bucker took his bicycle pump and filled it up with ice water from the fridge. I yelled at him and chased him, but I must give it to him, he planned his whole attack and escape route very, very well. Before he began his revenge on me, he filled a couple of jugs with cold water and stowed them at strategic places. Just as I thought I was catching up with him he passed the first jug of water, grabbed it and in the run emptied it onto me and then the second one. I chased him out into the garden, but he ran into the street, knowing that I won’t follow him dressed in just my short pants. I decided to give up and yelled at him that I would get him. I was wet and cold and turned around to go and dry myself. As I entered the kitchen a shower of water hit me once again. This time it was my wife and eldest daughter, each with a bucket full of icy cold water. Well, all I can say is that at that stage I knew that I have lost the battle.

But the story does not end there. I have never been one to accept defeat and I was not going to let them get away with it. I knew that I would get my chance. I just had to be patient. A couple of days later I was busy cleaning my fish tank. I stood in the bath room, filling up a bucket with water to top up the tank when my daughter and her friend came running past the open window. I took the bucket and stood ready at the window and called my daughter to quickly come and help me.  Here was my chance to get back at her. I crouched down so that she would not see me and waited for her to pass by the window. I heard her approach and as soon as I thought that she should be opposite the window, I got up and emptied the bucket through the window. It was bang on target. She stood there, soaking wet, water dripping from her hair and clothes. There was only one problem. It was not my daughter, but her friend’s mother coming to pick her daughter up after work. The poor woman did not know what hit her. She was soaking wet. I am not going to say anything further, except that she fortunately has a very good sense of humor and that I was forgiven. Needless to say that at that stage I had to admit that I have lost the war.

But now back to my owl story again.

“Uiltjie” was a fighter and he made a miraculous recovery. Five months after he got injured he was able to walk again, though painfully and with a limp, and even fly short distances. In all this time he was content to stay inside, but I could now see that he was beginning to get restless and that he wanted to go outside. After much consideration I one Saturday morning granted him his wish and opened up the hatch on the porch and allowed him to discover his freedom once again.

“He almost immediately noticed the open hatch and went out, looking as if he was never injured and confined to my workroom and porch for almost six months. He sat on the perch for almost half an hour and then flew straight to the nest box that I put up for him in a wild fig tree in the garden when he first showed up on the farm. There he sat almost the whole day, clucking like a hen with chicks.

Just before dusk he flew down to the dam and sat on the ground for a long time, just enjoying his newly gained freedom. When darkness fell, he flew back to his nest in the fig tree and sat there hooting, so as if to tell us and all owls that “Uiltjie” was back. He did not return to the house that evening but I was not worried, because I knew that he would be safe in his nest box and that he would come begging for food as soon as he got hungry.

The next morning, about half past four, I was awakened by his hooting in my workroom. I quickly jumped out of bed and found him sitting in his favourite corner, hooting to tell me that he was hungry. A day old chicken, a mouse that was taken away from the cats and 40 grams of steak later, he went to sleep, a free owl again. He was now sleeping in the house because he wanted to be there, not because he had to.

The task of rehabilitating “Uiltjie” now began again for the second time. This time all the hard work was his because he already knew what his natural food was, but he now had to learn how to fly properly again and to use his right leg and talon, which was still hurting very much. An owl can easily cope in the wild with a couple of injuries, even not being able to fly or blind in one eye, but if he has lost the use of even one leg like “Uiltjie” did, he was almost useless. But “Uiltjie” wasn’t prepared to give up. He actually turned left handed (or is it left legged) after a while and after a few days showed up with a rat that he somehow managed to catch with his left leg. Because his right leg was still basically useless he brought the rat home so that I could cut it into smaller pieces for him. He was not able to hold it between his claws to tear it into smaller pieces or to swallow it whole, as he still had trouble in swallowing large pieces of food because of his back injury. Any one that has seen an owl swallow a large rodent whole would understand why a back injury would make it difficult for him to do so.

Time went by and “Uiltjie” improved drastically. I however had to support him with food for the first couple of weeks and had to keep him inside whenever there were strong winds blowing as his flying ability was not yet up to standard. (Spotted Eagle Owls at their best don’t like strong winds and normally go and hunt in sheltered areas or wait the storm out by taking shelter behind rocks or bushes on the ground when there is a strong wind blowing). And this is how I discovered another interesting fact about owls. “Uiltjie” did not like to be caught and held against his will inside the house and he began associating strong wind with me catching him. Now, almost 7 years later, he still associate strong wind with being caught and I have a hard time getting close to him when there is a strong wind blowing. On a normal day he would allow me to get close to him, even touch and stroke him, but whenever the wind blows strongly, he won’t allow me to get close to him at all. This proves that owls have a long term memory and that they definitely can remember bad experiences.

We were overwhelmed with “Uiltjie’s” remarkable recovery. The owl that was sentenced to death managed to defy everybody that said that he would never be able to fly and hunt again. Yes, the process was slow and painful, but today I thank God that we decided to, despite everybody’s advice, give him a chance to prove them wrong. “Uiltjie” was back again, although he was not the same strong magnificent owl that he used to be. He had a permanent limp in his right leg and because of his spinal injury his little body was contorted a little bit, but he was alive, free to come and go as he pleased and he could fend for himself and enjoyed doing so.

There are people that say: “Why rehabilitate a sick or injured bird? Is it not nature’s law that only the fittest must survive? Are we not interfering with nature if we help these animals? Shouldn’t we just let nature take its own course?”

There is however one thing that they must remember. Ninety nine percent of birds that come in for rehabilitation (to me anyhow) don’t come in because they are weak and inferior and not able to survive in nature; no they come in because of human interference or inventions. Being hit by a vehicle, or suffering from secondary poisoning or getting entangled in a barbed wire fence does not make an owl a weak link in the chain and they definitely do not deserve “not” to be helped. The true grit of these birds actually show when they, like Uiltjie, manage to survive and recover against all odds and because of their long term memory, they become wiser and will one day most probably teach their offspring to evade these dangers, because young owlets learn by the example that their parents set. Even if a bird cannot be successfully rehabilitated I strongly believe that it can still play an active role in educating people or foster parenting orphaned birds. During the past couple of decades the human race has become more understanding, more helpful towards handicapped people. Is it not time that we begin to show the same trend towards helping injured animals? As my story develops, you will see how, by giving “Uiltjie” a chance, has resulted in something far greater than I ever expected or thought possible. Not only did he become instrumental in the successful rehabilitation of several orphaned owlets, but he also touched the lives and hearts of people all over the world. He became an ambassador, not only for his kind, but for all owls all over the world. Uiltjie also became an example to us as human beings, showing us that one owl (or one person) can make a difference.


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THE CARING OWL: CHAPTER 9: THE FIRST ORPHAN

About a month after I released “Uiltjie” I was sent a little orphaned owlet by the same lady from Bloemfontein that sent me the female owls a couple of months ago. There was nothing wrong with this owlet, except that it was hand raised after it had fallen out of its nest and she thought that it might be beneficial to both the little owlet and “Uiltjie” if I put the two together. We both shared the hope that this little owlet would trigger “Uiltjie’s” instincts and that he would adopt it and in doing so would prevent the young owlet from being imprinted onto humans, which it actually already partially was.

I was very excited about the arrival of this little ball of fluff. As a family we have raised a lot of small birds, but we never had a little owlet in the house. But I was also worried whether “Uiltjie” would accept the owlet. The way that he attacked the female owl was still fresh in my mind and I was afraid that he might be jealous of the little owl and even kill it. I knew that Spotted Eagle Owls have very strong parental instincts, but the problem was that “Uiltjie” was not a normal owl. He has never cared for a baby and did not even want a mate, let alone a child. What if he attacked the little owlet with the same ferocity as he attacked the female owl? The little bird would never survive an attack like that. The only comforting thing was that “Uiltjie” was still suffering heavily from his injuries and would most probably not be able to launch such an attack. There was however only one way to find out and that was to put the two together and watch them closely.

The owlet came down to East London from Bloemfontein with a lift, but I had to drive the two hundred kilometer to East London to go and fetch it. On my way back I could not resist opening up the cardboard box to take a peep at the little owlet. As I opened the lid of the box I was met by a warning hiss and a few clacking sounds. He was about 4 to 5 weeks old and was adorable and had the most beautiful large yellow eyes that you could imagine. I immediately fell in love with this little bundle of fluff and knew that it was going to be very, very difficult not to get too attached to this little fellow.

It was already dark when I arrived back home and “Uiltjie” had already gone outside to hunt, so I decided to wait until the next morning to introduce him to the little owlet. As I have mentioned, we have never had a juvenile owlet in the house before and I knew absolutely nothing about raising them and how to feed them. Fortunately this little owlet was so hungry, that he accepted food from my hand so eagerly that I had to be careful otherwise he would have swallowed my fingers as well. After I fed him I put him into a wooden box with a light to keep him warm and went to sleep. He woke me up twice during the night and reminded me unceremoniously that owls don’t sleep during the night like other birds do. This was the time that they become active and that their parents feed them, so if I wanted to be a good foster parent, I would have to get used to feeding him at night.

The next morning “Uiltjie came in and went to his usual roosting spot in the corner of the “Owl Room”. The little owlet immediately began hissing in his box. With his keen hearing, he immediately heard “Uiltjie” coming in and instinctively recognized him as an owl, without seeing him, most probably thinking that it was his long lost dad coming back to the nest. As soon as he began hissing, “Uiltjie” became alert. His ear tufts were standing upright and he began turning his head, listening at this new sound, not knowing where it came from, because the little owlet was still closed up inside the wooden nest box. “Uiltjie” flew down from his perch and landed with a thump on the box. The young owlet went mad inside and I went to open it up and took him out. I was not sure what would happen if “Uiltjie” came in contact with him, but decided to take the chance. Would he attack him or would he accept him? I put the little fellow on the table and stood close by to intervene if necessary. “Uiltjie immediately flew towards him and landed about a meter away from him on the table and cautiously approached him. The little owlet must have realized that this was not one of his parents, because he immediately took up a defensive stance, switching over to a warning hiss and making a clacking sound with his beak. “Uiltjie” approached him, but when he got too close to him, the little one pecked at him and hissed like a steam engine. He actually stormed “Uiltjie”, faking a mock attack with his wings spread out. Neither “Uiltjie”, nor I expected this kind of behavior from this little furry bundle. “Uiltjie” immediately flew away and went sitting in the corner of the room, grooming his feathers where the little owlet pecked him, almost like a dog licking his wounds.

I honestly did not expect this kind of behavior. I was always worried that “Uiltjie” would be the aggressive one and that he would maybe attack the owlet, but now it was the other way around. And it was there and then that this young owlet got his name. I called him “Cheeky”, because of his aggressive behavior. “Uiltjie” sat in his corner for a couple of minutes and then decided that it was safer outside and flew through the open hatch and went to roost in the wild fig tree where his nest box was. He sat there the whole day like a grumpy old owl, looking as if he was angry with me and blaming me for allowing this cheeky little bird to invade his room. As soon as “Uiltjie” left the room, the owlet changed from the aggressive hissing to the hissing sound that owlets make when they want their parents to feed them. There is a distinct difference between the two different hissing sounds that they make and one can immediately hear whether it is an owlet that is hungry and begging for food or one that is being threatened by something. It was apparent that this owlet was not afraid of me or other human beings and that he was already imprinted.

There is an old saying that “Curiosity killed the cat” and that afternoon “Uiltjie” came back to investigate and to see if the intruder was still in his “Owl Room”. By now I have put an open box in one of the corners for the little owlet and he was sound asleep in this box when “Uiltjie” came in. “Uiltjie” first went to sit in the opposite corner and just watched the little creature, turning his head left and right and upside down, the way that owls do when they are curious about something. The little owlet was fast asleep and did not hear “Uiltjie” coming in. I later on learned that if a young owlet’s tummy is full and he sleeps, that they sleep so fast that you can sometimes even pick them up without waking them up.

“Uiltjie was very curious about this little ball of fluff and after a few minutes flew to the corner where he was sleeping. The little owlet still did not wake up and “Uiltjie” slowly approached him. He sat motionless, like only an owl can do, for about half an hour, almost next to the little one, falling asleep himself after a while. The little owl moved in his sleep, making a soft hissing sound which woke “Uiltjie” up. He immediately stretched over and softly began pecking at the owlets head with his beak. The little owlet did not wake up, but began making a soft purring sound, almost like a kitten. “Uiltjie” began grooming him, first the head and then his back and one wing. Cheeky was still fast asleep, but instinctively stretched his one wing out, allowing “Uiltjie” to groom underneath it. I was completely astounded. The moment was so dear that I would remember it for the rest of my life.

But good things never last forever. Cheeky woke up after a while and as soon as he saw this big owl towering over him, he began hissing and clacking again. Poor old “Uiltjie” did not understand what was going on. For one moment he was affectionately grooming this little bundle of fluff, and the next he was almost attacked by it. He almost fell off the perch and immediately flew back to his corner, almost like a boxer when the bell rings at the end of a round. He did not approach him again and sat in his corner until about half an hour before the sun went down. He then flew down to his stepladder and lay on his little cushion in front of the open hatch. As soon as it got dark, he took off to go and hunt.

“Uiltjie” returned a couple of times that night and every time went sitting in his neutral corner for about half an hour before leaving again. He obviously was interested and curious about this little owlet but unfortunately Cheeky did not share the same affectionate feelings. Was it that he was already too imprinted or too old to accept “Uiltjie’s” affection, or did he just need some time to get used to “Uiltjie” and his new surroundings? This aggressive behavior lasted for almost a week. The two did not fight or attack each other, but just kept to their neutral corners. I began thinking that Cheeky would never accept “Uiltjie” and that I was going to end up with another imprinted owl, just like him. And then one day I came back from work and found “Uiltjie sitting next to him on a wooden stepladder that I put in front of the window for them to sit on. Uiltjie was trying to offer him a small piece of steak that I have given him earlier on that morning. He rubbed it against Cheeky’s beak and was clucking like a hen with chickens. Unfortunately Cheeky was not used to eating steak and he did not want to accept it, but the ice was broken. He was not afraid of “Uiltjie” anymore and was beginning to accept him.

During the next couple of days the bond between the two grew stronger and I began to distance myself from the owlet. “Uiltjie” was still not able to hunt properly because of his injuries and I still had to feed the owlet, but “Uiltjie’s” presence and interaction with him slowly began breaking the human bond. I could now see that Cheeky was becoming an owl again and I realized that the day would come that I would have to part with this adorable creature, because unfortunately he was also a male and would be driven out of the territory by “Uiltjie” as soon as he could fend for himself. It sounds cruel but it is unfortunately the way of the owl, and most raptors, and is absolutely necessary to prevent too many owls or raptors of the same species occupying the same hunting grounds which would lead to over- exploiting the prey on these hunting grounds.

In the few weeks that Cheeky was in my “Owl Room”, busy growing up, he provided us with a lot of fun and laughter. He was a real clown and was very inquisitive. He was in and out of boxes, tearing up pieces of paper and playing around with all my tools. He just could not leave my sockets and spanners alone, especially the sockets, and kept on picking them up and throwing them on the ground. As they hit the ground and began rolling, he would pounce on them, catching them as if they were rodents.

I did not know it at that stage, but this is actually the way that owlets learn to hunt, maybe not using sockets as a substitute for prey, but anything that moves. In nature they will pounce on dead leaves blowing around in the wind, small twigs etc. After a while they will move on to catching moths and insects and when they can fly, they will follow the parents, observing them as they hunt. At some stage instinct will take over and they will catch their first rodent. Once they have done that, they will quickly develop into the most effective hunters ever known to man. Their senses are so keen and their flight so silent, that a rodent don’t stand a chance. While most people think that their ability to see so well in the dark is their biggest asset, it is actually their fantastic hearing that allows them to hunt so effectively. An owl will form an auditory map of his surroundings and can hunt effectively in almost total darkness. They can zoom in onto a rodent, just by listening to its movements and can catch it without even being able to see it. I do not want to bore you with owl physiology here, but for readers that are interested in learning more about their acute hearing; I strongly recommend reading more about it on the fantastic “Owl Pages” website of Deane Lewis of Australia here: http://www.owlpages.com/

Owlets are real copycats and watch their parents closely. A lot of what they know and do is learnt by example. Cheeky was no exception to this rule and if “Uiltjie” did something, it wouldn’t be long before he would follow the example. If “Uiltjie” took a bath, it would not be long before Cheeky would also jump into the tub. This is why, to my mind it is so valuable to have an owl that is willing to adopt orphaned owlets and teach them the real way of the owl. It is something that just cannot be done by a human being. Though it is possible for a human to raise and rehabilitate an owlet successfully, the survival rate of an owlet raised by a real owl is just that much better.

One of Cheeky’s favorite past times while he was growing up in the “Owl Room”, was to play table tennis with his food. I had an old self made table tennis table standing in the “Owl Room” and he would spend hours playing with his food on this table, especially when he was not very hungry. He would sit on the net and kick and toss his food over it and underneath it and then jump and pounce onto it, sometimes falling over the net. Needless to say that the net was soon not in a usable condition anymore, because he would sometimes attack it and kick and bite it as if it was the most dangerous enemy in the world. But who cared. He provided so much fun and laughter that I really did not worry about him killing the net a couple of times a day.

Cheeky grew into a large and beautiful owl and he soon learned to fly.

I one day opened him up and he went outside. “Uiltjie did not attack him and for a few days Cheeky followed him everywhere he went. At night the two of them would go out and in the mornings would return to the garden. They now began roosting outside, normally down by the dam. After a few weeks I could see that “Uiltjie” was beginning to grow less tolerant of Cheeky. He would not allow him to roost in the same tree anymore and would chase him away from his favorite spots. I knew that it wasn’t long now before he would chase him out of his territory. And then one morning, about four weeks after I opened him up, Cheeky did not return to the garden as usual. We never saw him again and I knew that “Uiltjie” had chased him away. It was a sad day, but I always knew that this day would come and I accepted it. Unfortunately I do not know whether Cheeky survived or what happened to him, but I am sure that his chances of survival were just as good as that of any other wild owlet. This was nature’s way.

“Uiltjie” was still imprinted on me and most probably would remain imprinted for the rest of his life, but introducing Cheeky to him, although he never really brought him rodents, meant that at least one owl was saved from living a life in captivity as half owl/half human and though it was difficult to part with him, I felt that I achieved something great. I have done a lot of things wrong in my life, but this just felt right and changed my life forever.

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THE CARING OWL: CHAPTER 10:- THERE'S A RAVEN IN MY NEST

I was on my way to the farm after a hard day’s work. About 500 meters from the turn off to our farm my eye caught a glimpse of a movement next to the road. So many people have asked me how I explain picking up so many injured birds and animals, while other people maybe pick up one or two in their lifetime. I guess that over the years it has become second nature for me to basically scan the road and veldt for animals or birds that have been hit by vehicles. I have learnt not to assume that a bird or animal is dead when it lies lifeless in or next to the road. A lot of them, especially owls, are just stunned by the collision and will regain consciousness after a while, if not run over by another vehicle. It has happened quite a few times to me that before I could pick up an injured bird in the road that another vehicle would run over it, killing the poor bird right in front of me. Some people just don’t seem to notice the injured animals while others just don’t seem to care at all. Some would even deliberately swerve out to run over the poor animal or bird. Just the other day I saw an injured sparrow sitting in the middle of the street in town. I was on the other side of the road and by the time that I could find a parking place and get to the poor bird, five vehicles went over it, apparently without even noticing it. Fortunately it was stunned and could not move and was in such a position that none of the vehicles ran over it with their wheels. I had to jump right in front of the sixth vehicle in order to stop it, otherwise it would also have gone over the poor little sparrow, maybe killing it. After I picked the bird up, the driver of the vehicle thanked me for stopping her and said that she had not seen the bird and would have gone right over it. I took the poor bird home and was able to release it after a week.

But returning to my story: I looked for a safe place and turned back. When I got out of the vehicle, the bird, a young White-Necked Raven, struggled to get away, but kept on falling over. I carefully picked it up and examined it but, except for a little bit of blood coming out of the mouth and nose, I could find no other physical signs of injury. I suspected that it was a fledgling and that it was most probably hit by a vehicle and was suffering from severe concussion. It was completely off-balance and disorientated so I carefully wrapped it in an old windbreaker that was lying on the front seat and took it home to tend to.

At home I once again examined the raven properly, but except for a few ticks, I could find nothing wrong with him. After I cleaned him properly and dusted him with some flea powder, I cut a few strips of meat and gave it to him, but he was so disorientated that I had to force feed him to keep him from dehydrating and getting weaker. After I fed him I put him into a small cage on a warm blanket underneath an infrared lamp to keep him warm. Over the years I have found that most injured birds actually die from shock and stress and not from the injuries that they have sustained, so it is always a good thing to keep them as calm and warm as possible.

The next morning I was awakened by the shrill croaking sound of the little fellow. Although he was still a little bit disorientated and off-balance, it seemed as if he was feeling much better. I fetched some steak and this time he grabbed it from my hand, gulping it down as if he had not eaten for a couple of days. As I was feeding him, “Uiltjie” came in through the open window for his usual piece of steak. At first he did not even see the raven and went and sat on the table in front of the fridge, greeting me with a loud “Hu-Hoo”. The raven answered with a loud “arkk, arkk”. “Uiltjie” took one look at this strange and noisy creature and flew out through the open window without even touching his steak. He was not very impressed with this newcomer that was eating his steak.

In general ravens and owls do not get along very well in nature. The ravens see owls as a threat to themselves and their babies and will attack any owl that enters their territory. They will plaque the poor owl until he leaves and will even follow it and mock attack it in the air, trying to chase it away. “Uiltjie’s curiosity and his love for steak however proved bigger than his inherent dislike in ravens and ten minutes later he landed with a loud thump on the perch outside the open window, watching me feeding his steak to the raven. He turned his head upside down like only an owl can do and uttered a loud “whoo-whoo” so as if to ask; “Who-who gave you permission to feed my steak to this funny looking creature?”

“Stop being so jealous and come and have a look at our new baby. There is more than enough steak for the both of you. He is injured and you don’t have to be afraid of him.” I called “Uiltjie” and his curiosity got the upper hand of him. He came closer, swaying from left to right, still not trusting this new creature. I held out a tiny piece of steak to him and he gobbled it up. As I presented a second piece of steak to “Uiltjie” the young raven began making soft, almost chirping sounds. “ Uiltjie” looked at him and then to the piece of steak and then to me as if to ask me what he must do now, almost as if he was feeling guilty. He then took the piece of steak out of my hand and slowly walked to the little raven and stretched out to the little fellow. The young raven grabbed the piece of meat from “Uiltjie’s beak and swallowed it. “Uiltjie” was trotting up and down like a pure bred stallion, obviously feeling very proud of himself. I handed him another piece of steak which he also fed to the young raven and from that moment on the two became friends. Uiltjie even brought a few rodents to “Kareltjie” as we called the young raven, but he was not interested in them at all.



“Kareltjie” improved day by day and as he got better he became more and more adorable, but also very naughty. His favorite past time was to throw everything that he could get hold of into “Uiltjie’s bowl of water. Every time that poor old “Uiltjie” wanted to take a bath, he had to fish out all the rubbish. “Kareltjie” would watch him closely and much to “Uiltjie’s” dismay, throw the rubbish back into the water as soon as “Uiltjie jumped in to take a bath.




He was also very fond of playing with a piece of scrap paper, rolled up to form almost like a paper ball. He would kick it around on the bed and chase it so vigorously, that he would sometimes fall off the bed and then lie on the ground, kicking in the air as if he was having a fit of some kind. He was quite a clown on his own and don’t think that you could dare to laugh at him. He would get up and chase you, wings outstretched like a hen protecting her chicks. It actually became quite a game, especially with my two grandchildren. They would tease him and then run away, with him chasing them through the house. All of a sudden they would turn around and with a loud “arkk, arkk” he would run back to the bedroom to go and hide under the bed, just to begin chasing them when they turn around to leave the room. As soon as he had enough of the game, he would fly to the perch where “Uiltjie” slept and would go and sit next to him and take a nap too. Just like a baby, he would not sleep for long and as soon as he woke up he would begin pestering “Uiltjie”. His favourite thing was to bite “Uiltjie’s” talons and sometimes he made such a nuisance of himself, that “Uiltjie” flew out of the window to go and sleep in the big Wild Fig tree in the garden. It was obvious that “Kareltjie” did not know that owls had to sleep during the day so that they could hunt at night.

“Kareltjie” got so much better that he could now fly short distances and it was not long before he discovered the open window and began venturing outside. At first he did not go far from the house but, as he grew braver, he began flying around the garden and even to the chicken run. Fortunately for “Uiltjie” he stopped pestering him, but all the other farm animals now became a target for his mischief. He just could not leave the cats alone and his favorite was to catch their moving tails and don’t think for a moment that he was afraid of them. He sometimes stood his ground against four or five of them at a time, doing mock attacks on them and chasing them away.

“Kareltjie” quickly learnt to fly properly again. I was fortunate enough to see his first real successful flight. He was flying towards the chicken run as usual and was suddenly lifted up by the rising air. It only took him a few seconds to realize what was going on and in no time he mastered the art of making use of the slipstreams. One could actually see the joy that he was experiencing while riding the airwaves. He circled the house, going up higher and higher until I could barely see him, just to plummet down at a dazzling speed and then up into the air again, soaring high above the farm like an eagle. Unfortunately I lack the words to describe the joy that he was experiencing in being free and able to go wherever the wind took him. I once had a similar experience when I released an injured rock kestrel after it recovered from its injuries. Once one have seen and experienced something like this, you realize that God has made birds to be free, not to be kept in a cage or aviary where they will slowly fade away over the years. There are some instances when a bird cannot be released and it is best for the bird to be kept in captivity, but if there is the slightest chance that it would be able to cope in the wild, it should be given that chance. Sometimes they don’t make it and sometimes they return to captivity, but they at least deserve that chance to try and to decide for themselves. We have a lot of birds, especially seed eaters and doves, that has returned to the aviary and refuse to leave again, but it must be their decision.

“Kareltjie” mastered the art of flying but still did not leave the farm. He was like a naughty child and just could not leave anyone or anything alone. One day my wife’s cell phone disappeared. We looked everywhere and of course “Kareltjie” searched just as hard for it as we did. We could find it nowhere and even went so far to cancel the sim card as we thought that she either lost it, or that it was stolen. Three days later I was searching for something else in a box that was standing on the balcony, when I found it. He somehow managed to take it apart and stowed all the parts in this box. Fortunately I found all the parts and managed to get the cell phone working again. “Kareltjie” must also have heard the story of Joseph and the grain silo’s of Egypt and must have decided that he would also make provision for those lean years, because he hid pieces of food everywhere. He even stowed a few pieces of steak in my suit that I wear to church. If your jacket or trousers were hanging outside, you could be sure that he would go and hide something in the pockets.

There was only one way to describe “Kareltjie”. He was one “black bundle of mischief”. One day I was working in the chicken run. “Kareltjie was, like usual, following my every movement to see what he could steal. I lost two of my front teeth in an accident a few years ago and was now stuck with a palet with two false teeth. I never got used to it and whenever nobody was around, the false teeth ended up in my shirt pocket. Needless to say, that particular day was no exception to the rule. As I bent down to pick something up, my false teeth fell out of my shirt pocket. This was just the chance that “Kareltjie” was waiting for. With his keen eyesight, he immediately saw the false teeth and before I could bend down to pick it up, he swooped down and grabbed it and flew away with it in his mouth. I chased after him, shouting and waving with my arms, but to no avail. He landed on the roof of the chicken pen, but before I could get close to him he flew away with “my” teeth in his mouth and went to sit in the big wild fig tree. Despite being so annoyed with him, I could not help but laugh. There was this raven, sitting in the tree with my false teeth in his mouth, almost as if he was posing for a toothpaste advertisement. I must admit, he had quite a stunning smile for a raven. The white teeth were in shrill contrast with his black plumage and would have done any toothpaste advertisement good.

But it was my teeth and I wanted them back. I climbed into the tree, but before I was halfway, he flew away and went and sat on a fence pole. I began worrying now. What if he decided to fly away with my teeth and go and hide it somewhere in the bush, or drop it or something? I decided to quickly go and fetch a piece of steak in the kitchen to see if I could not persuade him to exchange my false teeth for the steak. “Kareltjie’s” eyes lit up when he saw the steak, but he was not prepared to give up his prize. I dangled the steak in front of him and he took the teeth out of his mouth with his left claw, but still did not want to give it up. At least the bugger was not smiling at me with my own teeth anymore. I held the steak closer to him and as he grabbed it, I grabbed his two legs with my other hand. He put up a raucous, sounding as if I was murdering him, but still did not want to part with my teeth. In the end I had to force his talons open to get my teeth back.

I immediately went to the house and cleaned my teeth thoroughly and put them in my mouth. Needless to say that I wasn’t going to take my teeth out again, anyhow not if “Kareltjie” was in the vicinity.

A couple of days later “Kareltjie” decided to join what we thought to be his real family. He however still kept on coming back for food every day. About a month later he seemed to hook up with a female raven and brought her home to show to us. Since then he has gone wild, but still come and steal some of “Uiltjie’s” food every now and again. We miss him very much, but at least we know that he was accepted by the other ravens and that he is now living the way that he is supposed to.

A few nights later I had the strangest of dreams. I dreamt that “Kareltjie” brought his new babies to the farm to show to us. The two of them sat in the wild fig tree next to him, smiling at me with the cutest smile you have ever seen on a raven’s face. Both of them had the whitest teeth that you have ever seen in their beaks. And instinctively I stroked over my shirt pocket to feel if my false teeth were still there.

chris@thecaringowl.co.za

 


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