Chapter 7 - Flight School
I felt like a parent whose child had just taken his first step! Sushi could fly! My friends were wrong. It was instinct, just like the attack on the fiddlers. However, just like a parent whose child starts to walk, this presented a whole new set of problems. Sushi wouldn't stay in his basket anymore.
At work, the owl was making clumsy attempts at flight, usually missing his target and ending up hanging upside down from one foot. Everyone would rush to set him upright.
Sushi's first few flights were short hops. All the employees were amused by his constant antics. If we all kept his belly full, he would sit quietly on the edge of his basket. And, just like a child, when he awoke from one of his many naps, he was full of energy, owl poop and owl pellets. There was no stopping him.
Sushi would flutter from the counter to the floor, sometimes making an awful prat fall by misjudging the distance. Then he would strut, or rather waddle, across the floor. He waddled like a baby with an overfull diaper. Nothing in the world walks quite like an owl on the ground. We quickly learned that when Sushi fluffed up his feathers, held his wings out and backed up, he was about to make a mess. It was scatter or get splattered.
His favorite owl game was "mock attack." Anything on the floor was fair game. A scrap of fabric, a wad of cotton, would call for an elaborate leap into the air landing, sometimes, with both talons clenched on the item, and sometimes miss altogether. He would puff himself up, and look around proudly at us, as if to say... "Look what I did!" Sometimes he attacked thin air with the same sense of pride. His talon/eye coordination had not fully developed yet.
All non-food items had to be taken away from him. And, larger items, like a pencil, were a big no-no, because he would up-end it and attempt a Houdini sword swallow on it. When we took took these non-food items away from him, he would cuss us in owlese. "Burlakamog!" "Reberredin!" Sushi mumbled under his breath a lot.
Work became difficult with an owl crashing around the shop. We were forever vigilant. One "owl movement", or owl pellet on a customer's fabric could spell disaster. Fortunately, Sushi had several favorite places to land. Once he landed successfully, or semi-successfully, he would be content to stay put for a while. His favorite perch was atop a huge roll of foam. This put him high above everyone. There he could watch everything.
The tall roll of foam was covered in towels and washable plastic. Sushi looked like one of those fake owls you see in marinas. Many a customer walked right by him and never saw him. Others were quite startled when the "fake" owl moved. One customer thought he was one of those silly battery powered toys!
All good things must come to an end. It was too difficult to contain Sushi when he decided to go on one of his "walk-abouts", or rather "waddle-abouts." Plus, he was getting too big for his basket and would sit on the rim of the basket when I drove him to and from work.
Sushi was a big hit at any drive-in window. All work would cease while the employees ran to the window to see him. But, when Sushi decided to start flying around the inside of my car as I was driving, it was time for the next step in Sushi's training.
Everyone loved the little owl, and had hours of entertainment watching his antics in the shop. But, Sushi was around people too much, and becoming much too tame. He needed to be removed from so much human contact if he ever was to be wild.
"When the young leave the nest at about 4 weeks, they are not able to fly, but crawl out of the nest using their beak and talons to sit on branches. These owls are called branchers. They fledge at 35 to 40 days." - The Owl Pages - Barred Owls - Strix varia
Chapter 8 - The Fledgling
Sushi was now more than a month old. The owl was weaned. He had graduated from an eye dropper, to a spoon, to a dish of food and the ability to catch live minnows swimming in a low flat dish of water. He was still small... so we put him in a second story outdoor porch, with screened and glassed in windows, as well as a tile floor.
The owl could make a serious mess. The porch was an easy clean situation. We made him a special tree branch perch up high on the porch. He could look out from the windows and watch other birds. Sushi seemed to enjoy the nature around him, feeling the cool breeze and listening to sounds of nature. The owl was free to fly, or waddle about the entire porch.
Steve and I went to work every day now without Sushi. Fresh catfood would be left in a bowl, and he had a huge flat dish full of water and live minnows. The fledgling would spend hours wading in the bowl, trying to catch the minnows. Sometimes, he would forget this was his lunch and take a bath in the bowl, knocking squirming minnows everywhere on the floor...where he would have to chase them.
Now that Sushi was "fledged", he began acting very much like an adolescent. He didn't like to get in his basket anymore. He barely fit in the basket, but it was the only way we were comfortable transporting him. We never physically picked him up and forced him to do anything. It was his choice. Occasionally, he would get in the basket.
We were only able to take him out to Sushi's tree a few more times. Since Sushi could now make short flights, poor Steve had to climb trees more than once to retrieve him. When Steve had to climb trees to get the owl, he would give me that LOOK. The LOOK that says... "I wonder how much a divorce would cost me?" But, he didn't say anything.
It was during this time that other birds began to attack poor little Sushi. All birds hate owls. Owls are a predator. Owls steal their young. Many full grown birds will attack an owl, and band together to harass an owl out of their territory.
As Sushi grew, he began to draw the attention of the wild birds. Now, when Sushi was in Sushi's tree, the birds would gather. The first bird to spot Sushi would shrill a loud warning. The trees would fill up with birds of all species, calling back and forth to each other. The brave ones, usually the bigger birds like Cardinals, Blue Jays or Mockingbirds, would come in for a closer look. All the birds fascinated the owl.
One of the last times we had Sushi out, perched in Sushi's tree, a large, male Blue Jay swooped down behind the owlet, and gave him a nasty peck on the back of the head! This time Sushi made a sound we had never heard before. He started crying... ."ohhhhhhweai!"... "ohhhhhhweai!" The little owl fluttered out of his tree and landed on the arm of my chair. Strangely, the fledgling laid his head on my arm and continued with the little crying sounds. It was the only time the owl ever touched me. How difficult it was not to pet him and comfort him.
Sushi didn't understand why the big bird pecked him. He didn't understand pain, because he never had any. But, I knew in my foster mom's heart that the little owl was in for a lot of attacks, and I wouldn't be there to help him. He had to learn this lesson on his own. I spoke softly to him about the mean old bird and he calmed down, but didn't go back to his tree. He stayed close to me all afternoon... garbling at me about his misadventure.
Soon, the trips to the houseboat ceased altogether. We couldn't retrieve Sushi, and he was too young and small to make it alone, yet.
We would be gone all day, and sometimes into the night, at work. Sushi was alone on the porch most of the time. He had plenty of food and water. But, he started pitching "owl fits." The bird was furious that we left him alone so much, and his outdoor trips had ceased.
Sushi would either screech loudly at us when we came home, or turn his back on us, refusing to speak (garble), or acknowledge our presence. Occasionally, he would refuse to eat. The owl was acting like a spoiled teenager who doesn't get his way. Sushi was miserable. We were miserable. It was time for another change.
"An old-time society of the Sioux was called The Owl Lodge. This society believed that nature forces would favor those who wore owl feathers and, as a result, their vision would become increased." - The Owl Pages - Owls in Lore and Culture
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