A few weeks ago…. Umm okay it was just over a month ago looking at the date (3 November), Dr Joao brought a little Southern white-faced owl to Karingani for release. Apparently, the little guy was confiscated from the illegal pet trade in the Maputo area and then hand raised by a rehabber. As the sun was beginning to set, we opened up the travel box and watched as the owl flew to one of the trees in our garden and off to freedom.
Well, apparently, freedom was a bit more than the little owl bargained for. About a week later I was inside my house and heard the birds outside going nuts, so I went to check it out and there was Little Owl sitting on a tree branch looking quite scraggly. I knew it was him because as I walked up to the base of the tree, he just quietly looked down at me instead of flying off like most raptors would. He then flew to the ground, and I was able to slowly move closer to him before he flew back up into a tree on the edge of our garden. I decided to offer him a mouse (yes, we keep frozen mice in the freezer “just in case”) and walked out to the tree he was sitting in, holding the mouse up where he could see it. He watched me for a few moments then few to my hand, took the mouse and flew away again. I was hoping the free meal might just have been what he needed to keep up his strength for hunting and continue living his wild life.
A few nights later as I was turning off the generator for the night, I found Little Owl once again. He was sitting on the ground staring, as if perplexed by the generator. I sat down next to him and just chatted a bit to him then stroked his head. The dogs got excited about the fact that I was sitting at lap cuddling-level and came over to check things out, Little Owl immediately flew away into the night.
The next morning was a Thursday and it was a hot one, but we were promised cold storms moving in that evening. So Teacher Debora decided to do the school’s swim lessons a few days early and came to our house that morning. Thank heavens she did! As her and Donnacha were packing up pool toys to leave they found poor Little Owl nearly half drowned in the pool filter! She called me and I raced away from a Wild Dog Advisory Group meeting to go and rescue him. The poor thing was cold, very wet, exhausted and hungry, but thanks to Debora and Donnacha, he was alive! I got him dried up and fed him a mouse which he immediately gobbled down, and I called the vets to ask for advice. Since we had big storms moving in for the next few days, we decided it would be best for me to hold on to Little Owl for a bit in the house and focus on getting him fattened up again. He quickly adjusted to the routine and would start to make the cutest soft purring sounding who-noise that I have ever heard when he decided it was time to be fed. Throughout the day he would peak out from a hole in his box and check what was going on in the house.
After about a week, we decided that Little Owl was looking healthy enough to begin the release process, but this time we planned a slower step-by-step soft release to help give him the best chance of survival and re-wildling. We build a soft-release box that we mounted up high outside and placed Little Owl in it where he hung out for a few days, checking out his surroundings. Finally, we opened the hatch and he jumped out on to his feeding platform. Little Owl hung out for a while on the owl box platform before flying to a nearby tree until it got dark.
A night or two later I was in the living room when I heard that purring-who call from outside – my child was calling me! I raced outside and found him hanging out in a tree nearby. He heard my voice and wanted to come and see if he could still get his free meal. I thawed out a rat pup and called him over to the owl box feeding platform where he landed on my hand, took the rat pup then flew away again!
And now, it has been almost two weeks since Little Owl’s soft release, and every single night at exactly (and I mean exactly, this guy is super punctual) 18:30 you can those soft little purr-whos announcing that our half-wild feathered child is ready for his supper. (While is a super special experience for us, I must give a disclaimer that under normal circumstances feeding and encouraging wildlife to come to humans for food is a big no-no and owls 100% are not pets! Encouraging wildlife to come to humans for food can cause all sorts of problems and can lead to serious human-wildlife conflict where both animals and humans are at risk! (So don’t do it). This is a very unique situation in a very safe and controlled environment, and we not only have experience with wildlife rehab, we also have permission from the government for case-by-case rehabbing of wildlife. Okay, disclaimer over.)
Over the weekend, Little Owl decided to roost for the day in one of the trees in our garden (nocturnal raptors, such as owls, often will find shelter in a tree, hopefully out of sight from birds that might harass and mob them, to sleep until darkness falls and it is time to become active). I took full advantage of having daylight to snap away and get some beautiful photos of him. While standing under the tree snapping away with my camera, Little Owl decided he was ready for his close up and flew down and landed right on my camera! He then hopped to my shoulder and hung out for a bit before flying to a low branch making for some great eye-level photography. We hosted a spit braai that day and Little Owl hung out in the tree watching everyone as they played in the pool and garden. Right at 18:00 he flew down to the branch by his feeding box and announced that it was mealtime. It didn’t matter that there were 12 people over to host, Little Owl was ready for his food. It was a quick show as I held his mouse by the platform, he came, he grabbed and then he left, but it was nice for every to be able to see a white-faced owl in action. When they fly, they have specialised feathers on their wings which makes for nearly completely silent flying – no swooping noises with each wing beat. The amount we feed him is a supplementary amount compared to the daily diet requirement of a southern white-faced owl and is fed right as it becomes dark which helps to encourage him to continue to hunt naturally throughout the night. I had secretly hoped that Hedwig would do something similar when I first released her, but instead she found herself a boyfriend that provided her extra meals and said cheers to me, so it has been nice having Little Owl stick around for a bit and live a hybrid life of being wild, but still coming around to say hi.