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...slides his foot down the curve of the fire screen, then, bobbing and swinging his head to get the range, he eases his weight forward onto that foot. The off-leg stays angled behind him. He sights in again on the tomcat, who half-dozes six feet away. Owl makes tiny adjustments, leans still farther forward. But no attack occurs, and there he is simply perched on the fire screen again; Owl's life is full of such empty melodrama. Since many of his hours are passed each day in gray, rather scruffy inaction, in being the half-interested observer of a great many commotions of no relevance to his life, and since each day is spent under the strictest house arrest, perhaps he needs to exaggerate his excitements. Or it may be that, against some grayness in our own lives, we are the ones who exaggerate.
An owl is an odd creature to keep about the house. Also for forest, hedgerow, meadow to keep. An odd creature anywhere.
I would like to describe how I removed the bird from the tree of its parents, senselessly shot, the nest in a cavity high up in a dead oak too rotten to climb, the traverse rope between two adjacent hickories, proceeding hand over hand until directly above the nest and so forth. What actually happened was that our retriever puppy, Jason, found the fuzzball, beaky and glare-eyed, in woods behind the house and bellowed at it until children came. They brought it home in a coffee can and piped the predictable question.
"Go home, Owl," I wanted to say, but the woods are a cruel territory for anything odd and defenseless. Dogs, cats, children patrol steadily.
He had been brought to a house already beset with enough and too many animals: the obligatory dog and cat, a big aquarium, half a dozen assorted turtles, two wild ducklings whose history began like Owl's, a domestic squirrel on board while the owners vacation. (Our youngest, Grant, has reminded me—three cups of dust in which his ant lions live.) But especially I wanted no more of foundling birds. Their demands are greater than those of all the others put together. Most of them require much expertise. Our usual experience has been that they eat ravenously awhile and then die.
Owl kept up a continuous chirring noise, soft and scratchy. The yellow binocular stare from out of the coffee can seemed to return my own stare, but not so. I moved out of line and the eyes did not waver. The owlet stood on its own two feet, looking alert and fearless. Feed him. The only fare immediately available was some soaked dog meal, pretty humble stuff. I offered a chunk, which Owl ignored until it touched the bristles beside his beak; then with a garble noise he seized it and gulped it down. Behind that little hooked beak there gapes a surprising width of mouth. He snatched another chunk, uttered his noise. All right, we keep him. To register the new citizen, I looked him up in the guide. I announced that we had a barred owl, Strix varia. Later that day a suggestion of tufts perking up for horns. A question is raised. A closer look is required. Otus asio, the screech owl.
Fledgling Owl Easy to House, Feed
...except that he never stayed fed very long and soon got the urge to march about. Owl took from three to 12 meals a day—it depends whether you consider one cricket delivered in a child's fist a formal meal. Even so, owl parents can call themselves lucky, their feedings have more substance and are processed much more slowly than the pap of insects and berries given other nestlings. The five foster parents marched a doomed procession of moths and beetles and crickets and grasshoppers down that throat, plus squads of what one interested woman termed "Bill's artificial animals": bits of beef liver wrapped in cat hair; chicken gizzard in poodle fur; dog food, bristly as any caterpillar with a coat of human hair; feathered shrimp. These last represented almost all I knew about owls; that their digestive tracts require roughage. For some weeks Owl refused hamburger. Did he know something about hamburger we didn't know? Something we ought to know?
When they shut, Owl has very nearly achieved the childhood fantasy, that when you shut your eyes no one can see you.