"Goodbye and Thankyou"

by Bill Oehlke, July 31, 1991

Divebombing crows and raucus bluejays caught Mom's attention one April afternoon as she pushed my baby sister's carriage along a woodland roadside in Pottersville, New Jersey. Instinct told these birds to destroy enemies. Natural order was in progress.

Mom parked Leeann's carriage and walked into the woods. The birds flew to higher limbs and watched my mother lift a helpless creature and carry it to the safety of the pram. Mom brought home two babies that afternoon.

When I arrived home from school, an owlet the size of a tennis ball was struggling to maintain its balance on our kitchen table. Down, the colour and airy softness of a dandelion puffball, covered all of the bird except eight black talons, a sharp hooked beak and round yellow eyes with black pupils. Ear tufts barely protruded from the owlet's rounded appearance.

The soft gray fluff was dark and adhered to the baby's body where Mom had washed the wounds. Eyes slowly and repeatedly closed and then reopened, pleading, "Please let me die in peace."

An encyclopedia identified Lee Owl, named after my baby sister, as a screech owl, probably a week old. Lee must have fallen from a hole in a tree as screech owls do not build nests. According to the reference, raw meat and small insects would be appropriate foods.

We were delighted when Lee accepted a gob of chicken liver from the end of a pencil. One gulp and the meal was gone. After a few such offerings Lee was apparently full and fell into a fitful sleep inside a tissue box.

When Dad came home for supper, he rigged up a padded box with a branch for a perch. Lee was much steadier with his taloned toes (two front and two back on each foot) wrapped around the limb.

As the days passed, I grew braver. Lee accepted liver, chopped meat and insects from my finger tips. Lee would eye my offerings, lean and rock his upper body forward and parrot-like and gently reach out with his beak and seize the food. The little owl swallowed everything without chewing, as owls have no teeth. I was fascinated with Lee's gentle manner, fixed eyes, rotating neck and rapid growth.

Within six weeks Lee had feathers and was starting to fly. Not quite fully grown, he stood about fifteen centimeters tall and could rotate his neck about 120 degress in either direction without the slightest disturbance of his down. Sometimes I'd offer a morsel just beyond his reach and watch him fix his eyes on the offering and then rotate his neck as if on a swivel as I moved the foodstuff in an arc around his head. He never became impatient and was always gentle when I moved the meal within his reach.

Dad and Lee were especially fond of each other. Lee was usually on his outdoor perch or on Dad's shoulder during daylight hours. Often Lee would gently tug on Dad's earlobe while my father sat in his chair reading the paper. When my father had covered the news, we'd all head off for a walk/ride/flight into the woods.

One evening we trekked to a nearby ice pond. I was horrified when Dad caught a small frog and offered it to Lee. Practically full grown at twenty centimeters, Lee took the frog's head and body into his mouth in one gulp. He looked like Confuscius with a fu-manchu as the frog's limp legs dangled from his beak. Dad sensed my discomfort and said, "He'll have to learn to catch live food if he's ever going to survive in the wild."

I hadn't thought of that, and the idea brought many questions to mind. In the meantime I was concerned that Lee might be choking on what appeared to be an oversized frog. Within a minute, however, the frog had completely disappeared. Small mice are usually swallowed the same way.

A few days later Lee really surprised me while he was perched on my finger. As I was stroking his feathers, he spit up a pellet about the size of a peach pit. Many birds of prey eliminate indigestibles by regurgitating. The pellet was soft but firm and contained insect legs, small bones and mouse hair. At least I knew Lee would be able to feed himself if he took off.

Owls have downy filaments at the base of their feathers that enable them to take off, fly and land almost silently. It was such silent flight that one day brought Lee misfortune.

Mom was hanging up the laundry and Lee landed on the clothesline just beside the pulley. Mom gave a sharp tug on the cord and then looked to see what had caused it to foul. It was obvious from his frantic wing flapping and screeching that Lee was caught.

Mom yelled to me. We couldn't get close to Lee with all his commotion, but we could see the talons of one foot bound between the pulley and the line. Afraid of ripping the much needed talons loose, Mom pulled gently on the rope in the reverse direction. Nothing happened. Desperate with Lee's plight, my mother raced into the house to phone my father who was working nearby.

Just as Dad arrived, Lee managed to free himself and flew back to his perch, apparently unharmed. A later examination revealed a deep groove in one talon.

By fall Lee was full grown and stood close to twenty-five centimeters (ten inches) tall. He would regularly fly off to visit the wild screech owls that my father would call in at night with a long quaverng whistle. One night we spotted six owls in the treetops beside the house. Unlike many owl species which are quite solitary and territorial, these owls are really social and need little more than three acres for hunting. The wild owls, like the female pictured below, had no problem accepting Lee.

Otus asio, Eastern Screech Owl, female, courtesy of Tim Dyson, copyright.

We could see him in the treetops socializing. He would fly down regularly to accept katydids and large beetles from our fingers. The wild owls would not.

One evening Lee did not return to us. He was not on his perch in the morning. We worried that something had happened to Lee when day after day, night after night, he failed to return. The nights were getting cold. Perhaps he was not prepared for the winter.

One evening an owl came especially close in response to my father's whistling. Dad stood perfectly still, his arm extended, a beetle between his fingers. He continued his whistling. The owl flew down to a head high branch in a dogwood tree. Slowly my father approached, whistling softly.

In the light from our spotlight my father could see a beautifully colored reddish-brown screech owl. Black whiskers hung down beside a horny beak. Lee Owl had been gray when he left us two weeks earlier, and we'd never noticed any whiskers. Why was this strange owl letting my father approach?

Dad held the beetle right up to the owl's beak. Gently the bird rocked his head forward and took the offering. He flew off to the treetops and whistled what seemed a sweet, "Goodbye and thankyou."

"That was Lee," my father said, "I saw the groove on his talon. Screech owls change their plumage in the fall. Lee's in his red stage now. I think he's going to make it."

Actually the owls don't change their plumage. There are simply gray, brown and red forms whose true colours show once the baby-gray down is covered or replaced by feathers.

Tim Dyson writes, "The farther north one goes within the Screech Owl's range, the more gray forms are to be found. Farther south, the more red ones."

Lee never flew down again, but I like to think he's out there returning that long quavering whistle.

This species flies across North America, from much of southern Canada south into Mexico. It favours woodlands bordered with open fields (lots of mice). It is not uncommon to find screech owls in urban areas.

The screech owl is a cavity nester that will use nest boxes.

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