– by Jack Ewing
Equinox is a Latin word meaning “equal night.” Twice each year, when the sun shines directly over the equator, day and night are the same length all over the globe. These two dates are called the March equinox and the September equinox. The March equinox, which marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, always falls on March 20 or 21, and the September equinox, which marks the beginning of fall, always falls on September 22 or 23. The March equinox in the year 2009 fell on March 20, and that was the day that a little ball of fluff came walking into my office at 6:30 in the evening just as I was thinking about closing up and going home. It was obviously a very young owl, nearly ready to fledge, but not yet able to fly. We had heard an adult owl calling near the office on quite a few occasions, and I surmised that this youngster had fallen out of it's nest, and that its chances of getting back were almost nil.
Normally I believe that it is best to let Mother Nature deal with her own creations. Her ways may sometimes seem harsh to us, but if a baby is separated from its mother and destined to die, nature has a good reason. I don't feel we should interfere in this process. But this cute little ball of fluff was too much for me. I couldn't bring myself to shoo it out of the office and into the cruel world outside. Instead, I called my wife Diane, who totally disagrees with my philosophy about survival of the fittest, and asked if she would be interested in trying to rescue a helpless owlet. “Do you have to ask?” She replied. “Bring it over.”
By the time I arrived home Diane had made some phone calls and figured out what to feed the fledgling, mostly small chunks of meat. Owls are 100% carnivorous and eat only animal protein. Though we had no idea what sex the owlet was, we somehow assumed that it was a he and began calling him “Equinox.” His name was soon shortened to “Iggy.”
With help from our ornithologist friend, Charlie Gómez, who was also a bird watching and ecotourism guide, we determined that Iggy was a screech owl of which there are three possibilities, Vermiculated Screech Owl, Pacific Screech Owl, and Tropical Screech Owl. All are small, less than 25 centimeters (nine inches) tall, and all are found in this region. We wouldn't know for sure until Iggy had his adult plumage.
Charlie explained that chunks of meat were not enough. Young owls eat mostly insects that their parents bring to them, and which they later learn to hunt for themselves. He said that wing and body parts have plenty of nutrients that aren't available in raw meat, and that these are essential for the young owl's digestion and development. We began capturing crickets and grasshoppers which we held out to Iggy until he grabbed them with his claw and stuffed them into his mouth. Within a couple of weeks we were turning them loose in his cage, and he hunted and killed them by himself. Our overall objective was to teach Iggy to survive in nature and liberate him into the wild.
Charlie said Iggy needed mice in his diet too, with hair, skin, bones and all. He said that the parent birds would sever chunks of mice with their beaks and feed them to the young. Diane became a regular customer at the only pet shop in San Isidro that sold white mice. Before long she had a couple of cages full of mice and was raising her own. Charlie said that the most humane way of sacrificing the mice was to freeze them to death, so we put several at a time in a plastic jar and stuck it in the freezer. Later we cut them into slices, which I called mouse chops, and which soon became Iggy's favorite food. Within a month Iggy was ready to start killing his own mice. At first he was pretty clumsy and the mice suffered the consequences of his inexperience, but after a few tries he learned to dispatch them with a quick bite to back of the neck. By this time he had all of his flight feathers and easily maneuvered around his large cage.
During all of this time we were getting to know Iggy, and he was getting to know us. Owls have so many facial expressions and mannerisms that we tend to imagine that we know what emotion they are experiencing, happiness, sadness, fear, indifference, curiosity, disapproval, or anger. For example, when an owl has its horns up, I take it to mean that it is alert or curious. In reality, we probably don't have any idea what is going on in the owl's head. One thing that is clear is that Iggy liked Diane. He loved to sit on her shoulder and preen her hair just as he might do to the the feathers of another owl. As he grew older his repertoire of sounds increased. As the name “screech owl” implies they can emit a pretty loud screech. The call is, however, in no way unpleasant, unless, of course, it comes from nearby at 2:00 AM when you are sound asleep. At first his voice reminded me of that of an adolescent boy, but within a month he was calling just fine. In addition to the screech Iggy made a number of other calls including a twittering sound that seemed to mean he was happy.
By late June, three months after that ball of fluff had come into our lives, we decided that Iggy was mature enough that we could begin the liberation process. We started by taking him outside and setting him on a tree limb. He looked around a lot, swiveling his head more than 180 degrees, but didn't attempt to fly away. Diane stayed nearby, and he always jumped back on her shoulder whenever the great outdoors became too overwhelming.
After a couple of weeks of this Diane took him over to the butterfly garden, a large tent like area covered with netting. He immediately became a big hit with ecotourists and bird watchers. He was plenty old enough to fly, but hadn't had much practice. His cage was a good size, but too small to permit extensive flying. The butterfly garden, at 16 meters by 16 meters (52 feet by 52 feet,) was a perfect place to practice and build up his wing muscles. There were lots of posts, plants, and guide wires that had to be avoided, making the learning experience even more realistic. At first Diane only left him there during the day and took him home at night. Later he stayed there day and night. She mounted a box up high on a pole where he could take shelter when it rained. About every third day she would take him a live mouse and put it in a large open topped enclosure on the ground. The mouse could run around but couldn't get out of the enclosure. This hunting practice was crucial if Iggy were ever to live in the wild and fend for himself. A group of bird watchers from the Birding Club of Costa Rica and their ornithologist guide saw him in the butterfly garden and positively identified him as a Tropical Screech Owl (Megascops choliba,) a species which is found from Brazil to Costa Rica and is fairly common in our region.
The next step was to give Iggy total freedom of movement. Diane moved the box from the butterfly garden to her orchid garden near our house. Iggy was free to fly anywhere he liked, but he knew that Diane would place a few chunks of meat in the box at the same time every afternoon. He also knew he could take shelter there. She moved the mouse enclosure over to orchid garden and gave him a mouse now and then until the mice were all gone. As time passed Iggy came around less and less for free handouts, and eventually gave it up altogether. At some point he decided that our bedroom was an ideal place to sleep during the day. Diane placed a cardboard box up high in a corner, and Iggy soon started sleeping there. It was during this period that I learned how truly amazing owls are. Iggy could be sitting in the box with his eyes closed, and a cat would quietly tip-toe into the bedroom on the ceramic floor without making a sound. In an instant the owl was on full alert. It only took a couple of dive bombing attacks on the cats to teach them to stay out of the bedroom. Iggy always left about dark. Sometimes he would come into the house later in the evening to hunt insects and sometimes he stayed out all night. He usually came flying into his box around 4:30 AM occasionally announcing his arrival with a loud screech.
When people try to raise wild animals the animals never become truly domesticated; they only lose their fear of humans. With maturity they become better able to fend for themselves and lose their dependence on humans. Instincts take over and the wildness dominates their behavior. This happened with Iggy. There were days when he didn't come to the bedroom to roost, and when he did, he started showing aggressive behavior toward humans. After several dive bombing attacks on Ana, the girl who helps Diane around the house, and one half-hearted one on Diane, we took the box down. Iggy got the idea right away and found a roosting place outside. He often came into the house at night to hunt insects, occasionally screeching in the wee hours of the morning, but all of the aggression was gone. Perhaps, to his way of thinking, the attacks were a defense of his roosting box.
Charlie suggested that we build a nesting box and gave Diane the design. The box was 35 centimeters by 35 centimeters and 50 centimeters high (14 inches by 14 inches and 20 inches high,) and had a hole the size of a baseball in one wall, just large enough for a Tropical Screech Owl to slip through. We mounted it out on the patio early in the year 2010. It would be a full year before Iggy showed any interest in the box.
During that year we heard him call almost every night, sometimes from out in the garden and at others from our patio. Eventually we got the idea that there were two different owls calling, but there was still no sign of interest in the box. On many mornings there was a telltale white spot or two on the living room floor attesting to Iggy's nocturnal visits. Once in a while he would come inside to hunt in the evening while we were reading or watching TV, but there was no physical contact. Iggy was definitely wild, albeit with an affinity for our house, both inside and out. Around Christmas of 2010 was the first time we saw two owls together. Later we saw signs that they were investigating the nesting box.
On the evening of March 18, 2011 about 5:00 PM, I was at the Hacienda Barú reception office. I walked into the storeroom and came face to face with another ball of fluff, a dead ringer for Iggy when he first appeared, and practically in the same place. This owlet was on a chair. Vanessa, the receptionist, spotted a second ball of fluff on one of the shelves, and the following day a third one appeared. The day after one of the parent owls started appearing with the fledglings in the late afternoon. It was then that everything became clear. We hadn't really rescued Iggy at all on the equinox of 2009, rather we had kidnapped him from his mother, and taken him on a strange adventure that few owls will ever experience. The mother owl had made her nest in a secluded cubby hole in the ceiling of the office storeroom. When the chicks started to fledge was when we started noticing them on the floor, the furniture, and the shelves of the store room. One evening right at dusk we saw all three owlets sitting in a tree outside the office with an adult. That was the last time we ever saw them.
By this time, back over at the house we were seeing lots of activity on our patio around the nesting box. With tropical screech owls, it is believed that the male claims a territory which contains one or more suitable nesting sites, and the female decides which male she will mate with, mostly on the basis of the desirability the nesting site. I like to think that his sexiness has something to do with it as well, but who knows. Anyway, from this point on things start losing clarity, because we aren't sure if Iggy is a male who convinced a female to nest in his box, or if Iggy is a female who sweet-talked a male into claiming the territory that contained her choice for a nesting site. What is clear is that two owls, one of whom was most certainly Iggy, nested in the box. We decided to call Iggy's mate “Igga.”
On Sunday, July 3, 2011, I got up as usual at 5:00 AM, opened the doors to the patio, and came face to face with a ball of fluff standing on an old couch we have out there. It was more mature than Iggy when he/she first appeared in the office. This owlet had enough feathers that it could fly up into the rafters where it was joined by an adult owl who may or may not have been Iggy. Every day they moved to a different place, but always on the patio. When Diane went near them the adult twittered at her like Iggy always did. At night the adult owl went out, hunted and took insects back to the owlet, who I called junior. On the sixth night they both disappeared. I figured that they had gone off into the woods where the adult was carrying out the education of junior.
After that we were aware of owls in and around the house on many occasions, but we didn't see them often. Then one night I got up for a midnight snack and saw three owls in our kitchen sitting on a rafter side by side. I assume that they were Iggy, Igga, and Junior. As time went on we got the impression that Junior had left. I like to think he/she has found his/her own territory and is living the typical life of a Tropical Screech Owl.
In early January of 2012 another ball of fluff appeared near the office. This one was spotted by a birder who had come to the office to talk about scheduling a bird watching tour. The sight of the owlet was all it took to make up her mind for her. The next evening we saw the same ball of fluff, or perhaps another one, in the same store room where Iggy's parents had nested for the last two years. By the end of January the fledglings had moved out into the wild.
Judging by the strange sounds that started coming from the nesting box at our house in late December 2011 we knew that Iggy and Igga had again taken up residence and were probably making a nest. By the end of January 2012 we were hoping to see fledglings. Every day Diane reminded me to check the patio for owlets when I first got up in the morning. We waited and watched. By the last week in February we had given up hope. We decided that Iggy's nest had failed, and that that there would not be any owlets this year. We imagined that the egg or eggs had been infertile, or the recently hatched chick or chicks had gotten sick and died, or something else. We finally gave up, and quit waiting and watching.
On the morning of February 27, 2012, I was at my desk at the Hacienda Barú office when the phone rang. Answering to the excited voice of Diane I learned that a baby owl had appeared. By the time I got home for lunch the owlet had disappeared back into the depths of the nesting box. That afternoon I was preparing to return to the office when I heard Diane squeal, “Jack! Come quick! The baby owl!” She had been watching television from a chair that gives her a clear view of the nesting box. She had happened to glance away from the TV and saw the ball of fluff sitting in the entrance hole to the box. We named it Quigley.
Two days later at 5:00 AM, I opened the doors to the patio and almost stepped on Quigley, who was standing on the floor. I went to call Diane and returned just in the nick of time. The owlet was climbing up a wooden pillar with our big cat Jake just inches behind. Diane grabbed Jake and locked him in a travel cage. I grabbed Quigley and returned him to the safety of the nesting box. That day marked the beginning of a flury of cat cage building at the Ewing household. Trips to the hardware store, measuring, sawing, hammering and moving our four cats from their small travel cages to their nice new living cages. Walking across our living room became like moving through a maze of cat cages.
On March 2 Ana, the girl who helps Diane around the house, was sweeping the floor of the carport, which is on the opposite side of the house from the patio and the nesting box. She happened to glance out toward Diane's orchid garden and saw a ball of fluff sitting in a small tree. She called to Diane to see if Quigley was still on the patio. Diane called back that he/she was sitting on a rafter. They both headed straight for the orchid garden and there they encountered Quigley II, the ball of fluff Ana had seen sitting in the small tree. By this time the owlet was on the ground under the tree and looking forlorn. Neither of the parent birds was in sight. Diane got a pair of leather gloves and moved Quigley II all the way back to the patio, which was clear on the other side of the house and placed him/her in the nesting box. Reflecting on this later we decided that the adult owls were probably pretty upset by Diane's well intentioned move. She was only concerned with the owlet's safety. But Iggy and Igga had certainly worked long and hard to move Quigley II from the patio all the way around the house to the orchid garden, a distance of at least half a football field. This had probably been a big step in the owlet's education.
The following morning when I got up at 5:00 AM, it was still dark out. I opened the doors to the patio and shined a flashlight around looking for owls on the floor, furniture and ceiling. To one side of the patio I spotted an owl perched on a rafter. Illuminating it with the edge of the light beam so as not to blind it, I could clearly see its adult plumage. Moving the beam of light I followed the rafters around the porch until I spotted another owl on the other side. It appeared to be a fledgling, but I moved closer to get a better look. Half way across the patio I was surprised by a blow on the top of my head. I never saw a shadow, never felt any air movement, nor did I hear a flap of wings. I only felt the blow and the searing pain of owl's claws digging into the bald spot on my scalp. Then I saw it fly over me and out of the patio into the darkness. Instinctively I reached up and touched painful area. There was blood on my fingers. Diane later treated the cuts and scratches with iodine. She counted 17 separate wounds, most of which were only surface scratches, but four or five were substantial and required treatment for about a week. Apparently the adult owl had clenched its claws on my head a couple of times, but only got me good once. One wound was considerably wider and deeper than the others, and Diane thinks it may have been from the owl's beak. The message was clear. “Don't mess with Iggy's kids.”
Then, to our utter astonishment, on March 5, Quigley III appeared. All three siblings were on the patio sitting together on a rafter.
Ana, who we had begun calling “Eagle Eye,” got in the habit of carrying out a thorough search of the house and garden every day. On March 7 she found the two adults out in the orchid garden. If you will remember, this is where there was a box where three years earlier Diane had given Iggy scraps of meat during the final stages of his liberation. Iggy and Igga were perched in a philodendron plant that was growing on the pole where the box was still mounted. The three owlets remained on the patio, clear on the opposite side of the house about 60 meters (197 feet) from the orchid garden.
On March 9 I got up as usual at 5:00 AM, and went about my morning routine. There were two owlets on the patio, but no adults. Though it was still dark, I walked out to the carport on the other side of the house near the orchid garden. As I entered the carport I heard a clicking sound like owls make with their beaks, and my foot nudged something soft. Shining my light down I was startled to see an owlet standing on the floor, clicking its beak, and flaring its wings in a threat display. It was mostly fluff, but the wings were lined with flight feathers. I surmised that it could manage clumsy flight, but probably couldn't take off from the ground. I bent over and picked it up from behind so that it couldn't bite or scratch me and started carrying it to a small tree just at the edge of the light from the carport.
Approaching the tree I looked up to my second surprise of the morning. Less than two meters (six feet) away was an adult owl staring at me with a menacing glare. I lowered my head to avoid an attack on my eyes, took two more steps, and quickly placed the owlet on a branch. Grabbing a quick glance I noted that the adult was no longer where it had been. I turned and started walking toward the house, relieved to have had avoided an attack. About ten meters from the tree I felt the blow, again on my bald spot, and knew immediately what it was. This attack left only minor scratches.
It turned out that Iggy and Igga were in the process of moving the Quigleys away from the nesting box and the patio and around the house to the orchid garden, apparently as the next step in their education. Later in the day of the second attack Ana found three owls in the philodendron, both adults and the Quigley I had helped that morning. For the next couple of nights we could hear the adults visiting the two owlets that had remained on the patio, apparently taking them food. Occasionally one of the adults would enter the house to catch a cricket or cicada. On March 13 there were two adults and two owlets in the philodendron and one owlet on the patio. The next day all five owls were in the garden, Iggy and Igga, and all three Quigleys.
From that day until this writing on April 25, 2012, we have occasionally heard owls on the patio at night, hunting and calling. We have heard both mature owl calls and adolescent calls. For a couple of weeks all five owls could be found in the philodendron during the day. After two attacks I had learned not to get too close to them during the hours of darkness. Obviously Iggy and Igga were teaching the Quigleys to fend for themselves.
On March 28 a large branch broke off of a tree very near to the place where the owls roost, and we think that this may have scared them. The next morning there were only three of them, one adult and two owlets. For the next couple of weeks on some days there were only two and on others three or four, but never five. On April 16 the entire family of five was back in the philodendron. I suspect that the adults will take the Quigleys out one at a time and put them through the ritual of cutting the apron strings. This will probably take some time, and only they know the details of the process. I feel privileged to have been able to observe a small part of the Tropical Screech Owl family dynamics.
That is what I love about working with ecotourism, bird watching and nature in general. You never learn all of the answers. The more you learn the more you want to know.
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