Chapter 13 - Freedom
Our next plan was to simply cut the wire out of the upper part of Sushi's pen, leaving his tree branches, nest box and killing box in place. We temporarily moved Sushi to another cage, and Steve added a huge tree perch that went from the inside to the outside of the Sushi's cage and reached 16 feet in the air.
We thought that Sushi might come and go from his pen, have his freedom and protection from the weather too. Since he knew where his killing box was, if he was truly hungry, surely he would come back to his pen. Wrong!!
When all the preparations were done, Sushi was returned to his own cage, which was now completely open half way up the sides. Within an instant, Sushi walked out on one of the limbs that reached outside his pen. Then, he flew straight up on top of the roof of the chicken coop, which was covered with a white vinyl tarp to keep the rain from dripping through the slats on the top. Sushi began attacking the white tarp! He pounced on wrinkles, grabbed parts with his talons, and tried to rip the white tarp to shreds. Throughout the entire time he was cussing the tarp in owl garble. "Kwolagho!!! Breeeneze!!! Grooooark!!!"
We watched this bizarre behavior for a long time. The more Sushi attacked the tarp, the madder he would get. The owl was having a temper tantrum! After discussing this new development for a few minutes, we finally understood. The owl associated anything white with a white mouse. We only fed him white mice. White was food. But, this white tarp wasn't warm and tasty, it was hard and ungiving.
Chuckling, we both went into the house and left him attacking his giant white mouse. From then on, we only purchased brown mice. Wild rodents were brown, and Sushi had to learn that brown was also food.
That night, preparing for bed upstairs, I heard a funny noise outside the closed shades. When I opened them to peer out, there was Sushi sitting on the second floor porch railing looking at me. How did the owl know what room we were in inside the house with closed shades? Steve said, "Good night, Sushi. Now go hunt." Apparently Sushi did, because the garbling noises outside the window stopped.
The next morning, as I prepared coffee by the big kitchen bay window downstairs... there was Sushi! This time he was sitting on the stairs of the outside porch. Once again, Sushi was able to find me in the house. He was calmly waiting for breakfast. This new behavior concerned me. Sushi, a full grown Barred Owl, was sitting on the steps with our three cats! Rhett, a big, sweet, yellow tiger tom, Ambrosia, an extremely ill-tempered Calico, and Tripod, our three-legged Siamese. The cats were waiting for their breakfast, too.
Although the cats didn't get too close to the owl, any one of them could have easily attacked him. Sushi showed no fear. The cats showed mild curiosity, but apparently thought he was just a big chicken. The cats had been raised around our chickens, who were frequently loose to forage. The cats knew chickens were off limits. So, this funny looking big chicken was also off limits.
Not only was the owl sitting on the staircase with the cats. Our female Rottweiler, Uno, was also outside for her morning romp. All 130 pounds of Rottweiler was sitting there with the cats and the owl. Just to be on the safe side, I opened the front door and in a firm tone told the Rottweiler, "No Chicken!!!" Uno had also been raised around chickens. She understood these words, and had never, ever, hurt one of our chickens. As long as Uno thought this was another chicken, there wouldn't be any problems.
This was a new development. In my perfect world, the owl would stay in the woods and our pets would stay around the house. It was inevitable that they would meet. Fortunately, so far, they all seemed to get along fine. But, I didn't like the owl being around other animals.
When I was ready to feed the animals, I put Uno in the house for her breakfast. As soon as I went outside with Sushi's can of catfood, the owl glided silently beside me across the yard, and I fed Sushi well away from the house and the other animals. While Sushi was having breakfast, I went back and filled the three individual cat food bowls on the front porch. Now it was time to feed Steve, so I went back inside to start breakfast for us.
Suddenly there was a terrible ruckus outside the window. Sushi had finished his breakfast, and decided he wanted the cats breakfast. The owl swooped right down in the middle of the three munching cats, puffed himself up, opened his wings and hopped straight at the cats, hissing like a snake. Cats scattered in all directions.
When Steve came down for breakfast I said, "Houston, we have a problem!" He just grinned. "It's your owl. Handle it!" Whenever the owl did something cute, intelligent, or funny... it was his owl. When the owl was bad, it was my owl. I gave Steve that LOOK. But, I didn't say anything.
I went outside to have a discussion with Sushi about attacking the cats. By then, the cat food in all three bowls was history. Sushi just flew up in a tree and garbled at me in contentment and amusement.
"The Ainu people of Japan made wooden images of owls and nailed them to their houses at times of famine or pestilence" - E.A. Armstrong - The Folklore of the Birds
Chapter 14 - Me and my Shadow
This was the beginning of the NEW Sushi. Everywhere we went in the yard, there was a silent shadow gliding right behind us. When we were in the house, the owl was perched outside the window of that room.
Now that Sushi had become an excellent flier, life was never the same. You couldn't hear the bird. Sushi could soar so close to your head, his feathers would barely brush your ears. But, the only way you knew he was there was by the woosh of air as he glided by. It didn't take Sushi long to learn that he could startle us by suddenly appearing out of nowhere. It became a new and favorite owl game. Even though we knew about the game, it was still quite unnerving when the the owl appeared right in front of you without a sound. Sushi could also disappear as quickly as he appeared, once again without a sound.
It wasn't necessary to call the owl anymore. When we appeared, he appeared. It was strange to see an owl out in full daylight. Sushi did just as well in the daytime as he did in the dark. But, he would stay in the shadow of the trees most of the time.
We often drove out to the houseboat, since it was a good distance from the house. Our vehicles parked out by the deck became new territory to explore for Sushi. He discovered the rear view mirrors. Instead of attacking the bird in the mirror, he would sit on the open window of the vehicle and look at himself for long periods of time. Sushi also discovered that if he sat on the open window, or on top of one of our vehicles, it was difficult for us to leave. It was his way of trying to keep us with him. Sometimes, he would ride to the front of the house on top of Steve's van.
Every evening, after work, we would head straight to the houseboat with a treat for the owl. Sometimes a mouse, sometimes fiddlers, sometimes mud minnows. We trained him to hunt by throwing live fiddlers over the deck into the damp marsh mud. There, under the deck, were a lot of wild fiddlers living in the mud. Sushi had to learn to go under the deck and his food would be walking around. The owl was a fast learner. Soon, he was perched on the walkway, still as a stone, watching the wild fiddlers under the deck, diving down and catching them himself!
The same thing happened with mud minnows. Sushi had been trained to catch live mud minnows swimming in a shallow bowl. Discovering that the marsh held food, Sushi would wait for the tide to go out and would hunt mud minnows swimming in shallow tidal pools. Our wild food bill started going down. My meals on wheels for the owl were further apart now.
Being the smart bird he was, Sushi also quickly learned that when we were going fishing, and pulled up our minnow trap off the back of the houseboat, there would be plenty of food in that trap. He would come sit on the piling and watch us pull the trap. The trap contained both crabs and fiddlers. We would toss a few up on the flat roof of the boat, and Sushi would fly up and tap dance all over them.
As we relaxed in our tall bar stools on the deck, discussing the day and watching the awesome sunsets, Sushi would "hang out" with us. Sometimes he would perch in Sushi's tree. Sometimes he would quietly land on the back of the bar stool where we sat. Upon occasion, Sushi would delicately reach out with his talons and try to catch a strand of my hair, or chew on my hair tie. We had to discourage this. As cute as it was, if he ever attempted to touch us, he got a firm "No!", and we would move away from him. Once again, he learned quickly. He might sit within an inch of us, but would not touch us, and we would not touch him.
This was the most delightful time we had with the owl. We would watch him hunt mud minnows and fiddlers from the deck. Sometimes he would sit with us. Sometimes he would fly from tree to tree and ignore us. Most of the time he would carry on his garbling conversation, as if we understood everything he said. It was common practice for us to talk to the owl. He seemed to enjoy it.
Once in a while he would perch right above our heads and stare at us in sterigne silence, as if he were in deep thought. When we went inside the houseboat, Sushi would land on the piling nearest to the window where we sat, and watch us. A few times he actually flew inside the houseboat through the open sliding glass door. But, he ended up knocking a lot of stuff over and scared himself. So, he was content to stay outside on the piling.
Every morning, Sushi would be outside the front door of our house, terrorizing the cats. The owl was much bigger now, and the cats seemed to realize now that this wasn't just a big chicken. Uno, the Rottweiler, and Sushi had an uneasy truce. The owl would stay just out of reach of the dog, but would also tease the big dog by doing his sudden appearance trick and surprising Uno.
One bright, sunny morning we were outside the front of the house, gardening. I thought Sushi was out in the woods. As I walked across the driveway, I picked up a big pine cone and lofted it in the air for Uno to retrieve. Uno loved to fetch, and she took off in a gallop to catch the pine cone. Unfortunately, the owl appeared out of nowhere and also dove for the pine cone! We would have never expected the owl to do something like that! I watched in terror as the big dog and the owl headed for a collision. It was like slow motion. Uno never heard the owl coming. Just before the moment of impact, the owl grabbed the pine cone out of the air and flew silently away with it, leaving Uno standing there quite confused. We both heaved a sigh of relief, but didn't play fetch with Uno anymore.
Several times in the morning, Sushi would follow my car all the way down the driveway to the main road. It then became necessary to drive all the way back to the the house and try to distract the bird with something. I was late to work a lot. It would not have surprised me to find Sushi perched outside the door of our shop at work. Fortunately, that never happened, but I swear I heard him a few times.
"In certain regions of Nigeria, the natives avoid naming the owl, referring to it as 'the bird that makes you afraid'" - Man, Myth and Magic
Chapter 15 - The Hunter
Late one afternoon, I took a treat out to Sushi at the houseboat, and he refused to eat. That was most unusual. The owl was always hungry. Instead of eating, he kept garbling excitedly. "Quuuagooooba! Beeerlieek!" He was flying from branch to branch, and doing his little sideways dance. "What is it, Sushi? The owl wanted my full attention for some reason, so I gave it to him. It wasn't long before he flew to Sushi's tree, and retrieved a freshly killed mole from a hole in the tree. Sushi had killed his first wild rodent! Instead of eating it right away, he hid it so he could show it to me. I made a very big deal out of it. "Good owl!" "Way to go, Sush!" Sushi chuckled contentedly and settled in to eat his mole. It wasn't a pretty sight.
Finally, the owl was hunting, really hunting, on his own. The next day I found him in a tree with a snake dangling out of his beak as he tore off little pieces. Sushi was having a little difficulty with the spine of the snake, but he just kept picking at it, like you pick meat off a turkey neck. That wasn't a pretty sight either.
More and more the owl snubbed the food we brought him. We began to find little piles of wild bird feathers and small carcass remainders all over the yard, but never, ever a chicken. The chickens were his "buds". He was raised with the chickens and still didn't know they were a food source. Sushi did like to dive bomb the chickens in a sneak attack and watch them run screaming in all directions, but he never hurt them. It was just owl fun.
Before Sushi came, we had a very large nest of tree wood rats in a palm tree by the deck. Within two months of Sushi's release, every single rat was gone.
Along with his ability to kill, came a new attitude. The owl was becoming more aggressive. Anything that moved was now fair game. The wild birds that used to torment him, now had to flee for their lives. Bunny rabbits, frogs and snakes stayed well hidden. Lizards scrambled for their lives. Anything that moved was subject to attack. Anything but people. Sushi loved people.
Sushi had the added advantage of being out during the daytime, and was feeding himself very well. He had turned into a magnificent bird. We watched in total amazement the day Sushi decided to chase a big dragonfly. The acrobatics were incredible. The owl dove, and swooped, swerved and climbed. He almost did complete flips. He stayed right on the tail of that dragonfly and almost caught it! We were astonished and amused. Sushi didn't want to eat the dragonfly, he was playing owl games again.
The cats normally did not come out in the big back yard. They stayed close to the house. But, Tripod, the three-legged Siamese decided to follow us out to the houseboat. Sushi swooped the little handicapped cat, knocked it down, and when Tripod got up to run, the owl would swoop again. Poor Tripod was knocked down three times before she made it under a boat in the yard. The whole time we were running across the yard screaming, "NO SUSHI!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"
But, the owl didn't hurt the cat. It could have clamped down on the cat with its talons, but it didn't. The owl simply bowled the cat over. Sushi was playing owl games. The only thing that was hurt, was Tripod's pride. Tripod did not find the attack amusing, and has never to this day returned to the back yard.
Now, for the first time, I believed the owl might actually make it on his own in the wild. There was always a fear that one day I would come home and find one of my cats dead in the yard. I loved the owl, but I also loved my cats. The cats sensed the change in the owl and started voluntarily staying close to home.
I made the mistake of feeding Sushi a can of catfood atop a flat covered trailer in the yard. Apparently, he hadn't made a kill in a while and he was unusually hungry. Canned catfood was always handy in case of an emergency. As I popped the can open and dumped it in the dish, Sushi made a perfect glide and precise landing atop the trailer. Suddenly, the Calico cat, upon hearing the delicious sound of catfood being opened, leapt atop the trailer also, not realizing the owl was already there. They were beak to nose over the food. In a flash, Sushi puffed himself up, spread his wings to their full length and ran at the cat screeching like a banshee. The last I saw of the Calico was the tip of its tail as it scrambled under the nearest parked car. Owl 2, cat 0.
"In many cultures, owls signal an underworld or serve to represent human spirits after death" - The Owl Pages - Owls in Lore and Culture