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Tree Child

Story by Ellen Ensley Created 2002-08-06
Page 9 of 19

Chapter 9 - The Killing Box

Sushi had to learn to hunt and kill. He also had to learn to live outdoors in all types of weather. So, we moved him outside to his very own pen, adjacent to 20 chickens on one side and a pair of red golden Chinese pheasants on the other. The pen had a wooden roof, tall ceilings, plenty of room, and was covered in chicken wire, with a large entrance door.

Inside Sushi's pen, we put several large tree branches for perching. Steve built Sushi a nesting box, exactly to the specifications for the Barred Owl. The Barred Owl is one of the few owls that will nest in a box. This box, when completed, was huge and very heavy. Poor Steve almost broke his nose trying to hang the big, cumbersome box inside the pen. It slipped, scraped the length of his nose, and blackened one of Steve's eyes. He gave me that LOOK. The LOOK that says, "One of these days Alice... Pow! Right to the moon!!." Then he finished hanging the box. To our knowledge, Sushi never set a single talon inside that box.

The owl was now almost full grown. Its baby down had been completely shed and in its place was a full complement of gorgeous barred feathers. Sushi's wing span was over 5'. He was 25" tall, and still growing. He was much bigger than he appeared, because of the hunched nature of the way owls perch.

Sushi was released into his new home with nervous anticipation. He loved it! The owl was no longer alone. All around him were things to watch. The chickens and the pheasants on either side captivated him. Wild birds outside the pen would hold his attention for hours. The best part was they couldn't attack him. Even a passing butterfly was entertainment.

To this new environment was added "THE KILLING BOX". I hated the killing box, but it had to be done. The killing box was an extremely large open box, big enough for the owl to land in, and move about inside. Live food was thrown into the box.
The first white mouse thrown into the box didn't last this time! Sushi made his first mouse kill. He swooped down from his perch, landed in the box, and after a few missed pounces, managed to grab the mouse. The mouse bit him. But, in true owl form, it didn't take Sushi long to learn that the quicker he killed the mouse, the less pain was in it for him. His food bit back.

Now that Sushi was outside in his own owl condominium, we only visited to throw food in the killing box, or fill his dish with live minnows or live fiddlers. Sushi loved to bathe. A huge tub of water was provided for his enjoyment. In the serious summer heat of Florida, we would spray him down with a misting hose. Sushi considered this great owl fun, and made delightful sounds as he held his huge wing span out for a refreshing spritz with the hose.

We were forgiven for locking Sushi on the porch. He loved his new environment, and didn't seem to miss us much at all now when we were gone. Neither did he become territorial about his cage. We were allowed to come and go from his pen without any problems. Even our friends, who occasionally took care of Sushi if we were out of town, were allowed free access in his pen. These friends were carefully chosen and trained to take care of the bird. They became official "Keepers of The Owl", and considered it a great honor to care for Sushi.

It was crucial that the owl never be fed by hand. A woman we knew had raised a baby owl by feeding it from her mouth. When the owl was full grown it was always flying at her face and had to be put in a bird sanctuary, where it would never be free again. We didn't want Sushi to ever go to humans expecting to be hand fed.
The killing box taught him how to capture and kill a variety of live food. A live grass snake presented him with a real challenge. Sushi jumped, and hopped, and even leapt out of the killing box several times before he learned that the head was the part that kept striking at him. Once the owl made a kill, he knew exactly how to kill the next one. From that point on, Sushi always took care of the head first with any live food.

When we gave the owl his first rat... there was a heck of a row. The rat won. So, we went back to mice. I was running meals on wheels for an owl. Twice a day I would leave work, go get a bagged live mouse, run home, throw it in the killing box and go back to work. At a dollar a mouse, it was getting expensive. My car was full of escaped mice, fiddler crabs and an occasional minnow spill. All of this food was augmented by an occasional can of catfood.
We tried breeding mice in an aquarium in the greenhouse, but Sushi ate them faster than they could reproduce. So, we always kept a few for emergencies, when the pet shop was out.

Sushi would wait patiently for his food to be placed in the killing box. If he was really hungry, he would get in the box and wait for you to throw the food in with him. But, he never attacked the person with the food, or tried to grab it from your hand.
The owl had mastered catching and killing food. He had lived outside in all types of weather. Sushi was now finally ready for a trial in the wild.

"In England, owl-broth was given to children suffering from whooping-cough, and the crushed and powdered eggs of the bird that can see in the dark were used to strengthen failing eyesight." - The Encyclopedia of Superstitions

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