For many days Owl only stared at insects set free in front of him: they might draw his attention, but then they could walk right out of his unswerving field of vision. Then he began to track them with an amazed, furious glare. One evening, so young that his flights were mostly jump, Owl, strutting about on a sofa, was presented with a large, slow beetle. He strained himself up to full height, studied down his chest at the beetle, backed off, bobbed a few times, then hopped right on target. As if seeking approbation, Owl glanced up. Or perhaps he needed instructions. The beetle emerged from the thicket of talons, seeming to proceed on knees and elbows. As has been pointed out, Owl is farsighted, in the weakest sense of the term. Where is the beetle, where did he go? Hop-hop back and another pounce. Again the beetle worked his way past the beak and talons. And repeat, until we realized the armor was proof against the owlet's beak.
In gradual increments, Owl learns to see, to fly, to pounce and kill.
The eight distinct vocalizations of Owl I can more or less imitate, but that nearly incessant chirr the infant and then novice Owl made—it defies me. Get a small rusty electric motor attached to nothing, plug it in, quickly pull the plug out—it will sound only approximately like the owlet but you will understand why the noise is hard to duplicate. One of life's minute pleasures is to hear his chirrs become softer...softer...he sinks into sleep. Awake, he is like some infernal sending device used by the FBI, he never lets up. In the forest wouldn't "others" be alerted to an owlet's presence? Why does he keep broadcasting? He is saying, "Here I am, Mother." And since his present mother weighs more than two dogs and two cats and a grown owl put together, it is of considerable advantage to him if Mother knows where he is at all times.
Learning to Get Along with Others
Trust is involved, but how much trust is appropriate in the life of an owl, free or captive? Many people want to pet Owl, which sometimes he likes and sometimes he doesn't. His early way out of too much handling was to squawk and take off. Now, more likely than not, and depending on how well he knows the person, he will simply turn and walk a few feet away. Trust is too strong a word, but he has the expectation that he will not be chased and hugged to death. If it's my wife involved, Owl will most likely get his hug no matter what. From inside the embrace he glares yellow outrage. Or perhaps he has found bliss. He is inscrutable.
For this reason or that, we have at times set Owl down outside, in a cage we have near woods. A number of little birds soon arrive. They fill the air with accusation, threat, alarm and summons. I enter it here that an owl on a stump has many acquaintances but few friends.
Owl and Claggart keep generating border incidents. The cat will eat an insect now and then, I don't know why, nor do I know why, having eaten a few, he doesn't go on to take them regularly. We have analogous yens and preferences: pickles, liver, rhubarb, etc. Claggart may believe insects tone up the system. Owl has lost a number of bugs to him, sometimes because Claggart beats Owl to the kill, sometimes because the cat will rush up: Owl flies, jettisoning even that tiny extra weight. But Owl when he might like a little snack of something to eat and Owl hungry—two different birds. Appetite not only goads him to go harder, it also sharpens his skills. Once he even carried the dispute to the cat. Claggart had pinned and was toying with a big hawk moth all his own. So much edible commotion was too much to resist. Owl plunged down from the kitchen door, gave the cat a faceful of wind, shadow and flap—Claggart flinched. Owl missed the moth but stirred it up into one last flight, which was to a place on the wall where Owl also arrived a moment later. Bravo, Owl!
"Why, Owl," says son Will, observing him from some odd perspective, "he looks almost like a bird." The owl motif these days in advertising, decorating, cartoons and so forth—well, I was going to say has become a fad, but any image that has recurred through well over 2,000 years to look out at us from coin, pot, fresco or necktie deserves a better word than fad. The living owl looks like an exaggeration of what an owl is supposed to look like. He flies and he has feathers, so our Owl must be a bird, but it takes some self-reminding now and then to realize that Owl is a bird. On the other hand he is not the sort of pet to make a person say, "Why, he's almost human." Almost human—a smeary kind of comparison. Myself, I avoid it except in reference to this or that person. Anyway, Owl is almost birdlike.