I’m not sure what caused me to glance up at that moment, nor how I noticed the writhing gray amidst the foliage but it stopped me in my tracks. I watched as tiny wings coated in fluff beat vigorously, but the bird went nowhere. Talons grasped at twigs, yet the bird teetered upside down. Was it stuck? No sooner had this occurred to me than the fledgling tossed its head back and two wide yellow eyes stared directly at me. A baby screech owl. It turned away and struggled again, seemingly too twisted in the branches to release itself and too high above a busy road for me to assist. I stood helpless. The yellow eyes locked on me again, and then the baby launched itself into the air and glided to land beside me on the sidewalk.
I stared giddily at my new neighbor. Had my presence anchored this fledling? Its gaze that second time had felt so intentional, and now the owlet was by my side. Had it been disoriented? Had seeing me upright on solid ground given it impetus to abandon its tedious position? A jumble of questions with no answers rushed through my head. The only thing I knew for sure was that I felt responsible for this baby. Certainly those eyes locked on mine were a plea for help! I studied the branches and trunks of nearby trees for signs of a cavity, a potential nest where I might return my prodigy to its parents. I saw nothing, but it mattered not. The canopy was too high for me to reach. Yet I knew that the bird’s best chance of survival was if its parents could find it in nearby branches.
We stood on a wide sidewalk sandwiched between a high wall and a busy road, a sidewalk frequented by zooming bikes and sniffing dogs – not a safe place for an off-balance owlet. Slowly, gently, I reached a finger down toward my little friend. It hissed a protest that sent it bobbing, but awkwardly it grasped my finger and hung tight. I spotted a break in the vegetation across the road and when traffic lulled, I rushed into the vegetated cove. As I looked around for a sturdy branch, the owl glided off my finger and landed a few feet away. It was as safe a place as any. I hoped its parents would find it.
I went on my way, but I couldn’t get those yellow eyes out of my head. Had my baby owl been rescued? Had its parents found it? I needed to know. I waited a few hours, long enough for the parents to intervene, then went back to the clearing. If it were gone, I would assume all was well. To my dismay, it wasn’t gone. It was mere inches from where I’d left it, looking pitiful as it leaned against a stone. I knelt beside it and those eyes fluttered open to stare at me. There was no protest this time. There was no clinging this time. The baby slumped into my hand, and I once again felt responsible. I gently wrapped the bird in my sweater and took it home.
I dripped water from an eye dropper onto its beak. It seemed too weak to respond initially, but resistance faded and it eventually lapped up the droplets. I placed a towel in a box and tucked my baby inside with a lightbulb above for heat. An hour or so later I peaked in at my patient. It had climbed up onto a branch I’d rigged across the bottom and was clearly feeling better. Those yellow eyes glared up at me and the owl hissed an adamant protest to my intrusion, so adamant that it toppled to the towel below. Even its attempts at menace were endearing.
I wanted to play foster mom. I loved the idea of raising this baby to release as the yard owl at my new home, but I knew I couldn’t train it to fly nor hunt. My owlet needed the company of other owls. So the next day I offered a farewell kiss, that was heartily rejected, and took my baby to the Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Center at the Frost Museum of Science. I watched as they measured, scanned and evaluated my owlet. I glowed with pride at the report of good health and a bad ass personality. My baby was going to be just fine. And as a bonus, they even promised to bring it back to the owl box in my yard when it was ready to be released.
It took a couple of months, but finally I got the call. I raced to the door when one of the Prey Center staff showed up. I peaked in the cage and my former owlet, now a beautiful, fully grown Eastern Screech Owl, greeted me with the same yellow eyes and adamant hiss.
“This one had attitude!” the staff woman informed me, “It was one of the feistiest babies we had.”
I was pleased. A pat on the head, a couple of photos and my returned owl was gently placed in my waiting owl box. I couldn’t help but visit the box several times. My owl sat at the entrance, gazing out most of the day. I checked again first thing the next morning, but there was nothing to see. By evening it was clear that the box was empty, and I admit to being disappointed. I’d hoped the box would become home, or that the owl would at least stay around my yard, but there were no signs of it…
until two days later. A shadow crossed the dark sky and something settled atop my pool umbrella. I squinted at the owl-sized shadow and imagined the pair of yellow eyes I was certain was gazing back at me.