Chapter 16 - Mr. Personality
Sushi had now come into his own. He wasn't afraid of anything, be it man, bird, dog, or cat. The only thing he has not mastered yet was hooting. We would spend hours with the owl hooting at him. The Barred Owls call sounds like... who-cooks-for-you. So, here were two grown adults, nose to beak with an owl, repeating over and over again... "Whoooo... whooo... who cooks for you?" Sushi would respond... "gzbarwaaakernack?"
How was Sushi going to frighten prey out into the open, or call a mate garbling, "gzbarwaakennack?" Sushi was trying to talk to us in his owlese. He had tones to his language; happy, worried, curious, furious, frightened and the delightful laughing chuckle. Sushi was trying to talk to us in the human language, and imitate our sounds. Most of the time he sounded like the old pervert on "Laugh-In." Our attempts to teach him how to hoot were a disaster.
Soon he would lose interest in our "who-cooks-for-you" routine and go back to hunting fiddler crabs in the mud. One particular afternoon he goofed and attacked a good sized stone crab. Stone crabs are much bigger than fiddlers, and they have one enormous and powerful claw. Fortunately, this was a baby stone crab, or Sushi might have lost a foot. The owl swooped down on the stone crab and made a successful grab. The stone crab clamped down hard on one of the owls toes. Sushi shrieked in pain and fell over in the mud, rolling around trying to get the crab off his toe. The whole time he was garbling his frightened garble. Unable to get the crab off his toe in the mud, Sushi flew up to the nearest tree branch with the crab still attached to his foot. Finally, the owl ripped the whole claw off the crab, dropped its body, and had to chew the still attached claw off his sore toe. Hunting and language lessons were over for the day. Sushi came down and sat on the table in front of us, holding his hurt foot in the air and garbled excitedly about his misadventure. By now, we were both used to talking to him, so we held a long conversation about the "mean old crab."
During this time of Sushi's freedom, we had many friends over to the houseboat. They were in awe of the owl. Sushi would come down from the trees and just hang around like one of the gang. Some people were afraid of him, but could not get over the experience of seeing a full grown owl land on a table right in front of them.
Sushi, with his love of fun, would do his sudden appearance trick on all newcomers to the dock. Steve's best friend was visiting us one evening. The owl had perched on the back of Steve's chair. Our friend walked out in the the yard to his truck to get some fresh caught fish out of the cooler in the truckbed. When our friend got up to go to the truck, Steve winked at me and said, "Watch this." Sushi took off from the back of the chair in his quiet glide. When our friend straightened up from leaning over the cooler, Sushi was right in front of his face. Have you ever heard a grown man scream?
We heard many grown men scream when they walked out into the woods to "water the plants" and found an owl suddenly appear on a branch in front of their nose. Soon, Sushi began to explore the neighborhood. He would go farther, and farther afield with each trip. Sometimes he would be gone for days. I would worry and fret about the owl. Steve would just give me that LOOK. The LOOK that says, "You ninny, this is why we raised the owl, so it could be wild." But, he didn't say anything. Regardless, I was always relieved when Sushi came back home and was waiting for me in Sushi's tree.
As Sushi began exploring, the phone calls started. Fortunately, they were all favorable. We had warned all of our neighbors that we were raising an owl. We had given them all instructions on what to do if they saw him. They were not to attempt to pet him, or feed him.
Our neighbors fell in love with Sushi. One neighbor had a small boy who had the thrill of a lifetime when Sushi came down and sat next to the child on his own back porch deck. Neighbors on the other side were an elderly couple in their 80's. Sushi would make surprise visits to them when they were gardening. Another neighbor received visits from Sushi when he had bonfire parties in his back yard. One immediate next door neighbor had a working boat yard. Sushi would perch in the riggings of the boats and watch the men work. The reaction was always the same. "What a beautiful bird!" or "What a thrill to see an owl up close!"
A neighborhood watch was formed. All sightings of the owl were dutifully reported to us. Our neighbors looked out for him. Actually, they were disappointed if Sushi didn't visit them once in a while. Sushi lifted the spirits of both the old and the young. Little care packages would arrive at our front door from neighbors with fresh chunks of beef, chicken, fish, and pork, carefully cut into bite size pieces for the owl. We didn't have the heart to tell them none of that food interested Sushi.
"Almost everywhere owls have been associated with strange powers, especially the forces of evil and misfortune. The lore concerning owls has such basic similarities throughout most of the world that it would seem to have arisen from a deep-seated and disquieting emotional response, evoked by a creature having characteristics interpreted as partly human." - Man, Myth and Magic
Chapter 17 - Dead Oak
One still, hot afternoon, I headed out to the houseboat to clean up from a deck party we had the night before. I was still smiling as I thought about the events of the prior evening. Several of our friends had joined us for steaks on the grill, and a nice fire in the Mexican stone fireplace. The seasons were changing from summer to fall. We still had hot days, but the nights were getting cooler... and very pleasant for outdoor entertaining.
In the middle of our little party, Sushi made one of his surprise appearances. The owl landed right in the middle of four couples. They immediately scattered in all directions. One of our guests actually had his leg over the dock railing and was prepared to jump into the marsh before we stopped him. We had warned our guests about the owl. But, they didn't believe a huge owl might appear in our midst out of the dark.
Once everyone settled down, and got a good look at Sushi, they all dashed to their cars for cameras. Sushi calmly posed for everyone on the back of one of the chairs. He was enjoying the attention, and the commotion his appearance had caused.
Steve and I knew that he was just waiting for one of the men to walk off into the woods to "water the plants", so he could play his prank. They did, and he did. We heard a lot of grown men scream that night! Everyone had a good belly laugh. Since we had to work the next day, and it was very late when everyone left, some of the mess from the party was left to clean up the next day when I got home from work.
As I approached the deck that afternoon, Sushi dove at me. This dive was different. The owl kind of ran into me, hard, instead of just whizzing by like he normally did. That wasn't like Sushi at all. I had instinctively ducked, and the owl glanced off my back and shoulder. "I thought you could fly better than that!", I said as I stepped onto the big outside deck. It was unusually still. Not a breath of air was stirring.
As soon as I stepped onto the deck, I picked up an empty can in a coozie from the round bar table, and started to walk across the deck toward the grill, to pick up more dishes. Suddenly, Sushi attacked! He came straight at me me over the top of the grill with both talons towards my face! He wasn't going to stop. I stumbled backward and threw my arm up. Sushi crashed into my arm, lost his balance, and fluttered away. He didn't sink his talons in, he didn't attempt to bite me, he just crashed into me. I wasn't hurt, but it was quite a shock.
Not only was I astonished at his behavior. I was very, very, concerned. This wasn't my Sushi. Sushi had never attacked a human. The owl regained his composure and flew off the deck. I was fussing at him the whole time. "What's wrong with you?! Don't you ever do that again!!" His attack had driven me backwards to the other side of the deck away from the grill. Once Sushi flew off, I headed back towards the grill, concern growing in my mind.
As I headed toward the grill, again, Sushi attacked from the same angle. He whizzed straight at me over the grill, talons out, even more forceful than before, with a horrendous screech I had never heard before. This time I was actually frightened of the bird, as I stumbled back again from the assault. Sushi had almost a 6' wing span, with a beak made for tearing meat, talons bigger than my hands, and sharp as razor blades. This owl could easily injure me, if he chose. I couldn't run, I was backed up against the deck railing. I defended myself the only way I could. I punched the oncoming owl in the chest with the only weapon I had - the empty can in the coozie. The momentum of his attack, and the force of the punch, caught him in mid-air. He fell to the deck. Once again, I wasn't hurt. But, I was really scared. My heart was pumping so hard I felt it in my temples.
More overwhelming than my fear, was the thoughts running rapidly through my mind. All the time we had spent raising the baby bird, training it to go back to the wild, was wasted. He couldn't be free if he was going to attack people. I thought of the little boy next door, and the frail elderly couple. Sushi would have to be captured and taken to bird sanctuary where he would be locked up, and never fly free again. I was sick. Even though the bird had attacked me repeatedly, I was afraid I might have hurt him with the punch to the chest. Although a big owl looks awesome, their bone structure is very frail.
After recovering from his fall to the deck, Sushi flew up to a limb on Sushi's tree, opposite of the grill on the other side of the deck, where his attacks had originated. He was garbling furiously at me and dancing back and forth on the limb in an extremely agitated manner. As Sushi perched above me on the limb, I started berating him. My heart was breaking. "No, Sushi!!!, Bad, bad, bad, bad owl!!!! What's wrong with you?" I was shaking my finger at him, up at him. "No! Bad Sushi!!!" I had tears in my eyes. Sushi calmed down and sat in morose silence, staring at me sadly. I didn't know if he was going to attack again. I was stealing myself to run for the houseboat if he came at me.
Out of nowhere, there was a horrendous crash right behind me! I was peppered with debris. The crash sent the owl flying off across the yard and my heart lurched into my throat.
As I whirled around, I saw a giant limb had fallen from the huge old dead oak tree that towered above the grill on the other side of the deck. This monster limb had crushed the top of the grill, splintered the deck railing, and smashed the Mexican stone fireplace into a million pieces. The limb was so big, it covered half of the deck on which I stood. It probably would have killed me if it fell on me.
But, it didn't fall on me. Sushi had deliberately, and repeatedly attacked me to drive me away from that side of the deck. Birds will attack their mates to drive them away from danger. Sushi knew that limb was going to fall. The birds incredible hearing must have told him the limb was cracking. Sushi had been out by the deck all day. I never heard anything but the final loud snap before the limb hit the deck.
I understood what Sushi had done. The owl kept me away from the grill and that side of the deck the only way he knew how. He drove me away from danger. I felt terrible! I had cursed the bird, and even hit it in defence. The whole time he was trying to save my life. Other than a few bleeding cuts on my legs from flying debris of the tile fireplace, I was alright. I was alive, not crushed under that limb.
Immediately, I went in search for the owl. My heart was till pounding hard from the fright of the crashing limb, and my knees felt like jello. Sushi was no where to be found. I didn't see the owl again for two days. When I saw Sushi again, he had silently appeared next to me, and was simply staring at me. I don't know how long he had been there. As soon as I saw Sushi, I apologised and thanked him. As I told him what a good and brave owl he was, he preened. Then he turned his back on me. Sushi was not going to forgive me easily. He was going to make me wallow around in my guilt for a while. He didn't garble at me for a few days. Then everything went back to normal. Sushi never attacked anyone again. He returned to be being his fun-loving self.
This time Steve didn't give me that LOOK. It sounds crazy to apologise and thank a bird, but when Steve saw the destruction from the limb, and realized the owl had kept me out of danger, he was grateful to the owl also.
"Throughout human history, owls have variously symbolized dread, knowledge, wisdom, death, and religious beliefs in a spirit world" - Owl Pages - Owls in Lore and Culture
Chapter 18 - Imprinting
Sushi continued to lengthen his time away from us. He was going back to the wild. It was silly to miss the owl so much, but we both did. The neighbors would call us with sightings. One neighbor swore she saw two identical Barred owls in her back yard. This sighting was dismissed. She didn't understand how quickly Sushi could appear and disappear. She only thought she saw two owls, when there was only one.
It was easy to tell what area of the neighborhood Sushi was visiting because he would be followed by a flock of screaming birds, if they spotted him. We didn't feed the owl anymore. He was completely self-sufficient. He never came to us begging for food. We were still blessed with his infrequent appearances. Sushi was just as friendly as ever when he visited us.
Late one Saturday evening in the Fall, we went out to the houseboat to gaze at the full moon. It had turned quite chilly, so we went inside the boat and sat by the big glass picture window looking out at the glimmering marsh, and full high tide. The moon was enormous, and pure harvest gold caught in a net of sparkling stars. It was like ghostly daylight, the moon was so bright. The flood tide was so high you could barely see the tips of the marsh grass. The tidal creeks and intracoastal waterway had all melded together into what looked like an enormous placid lake. The big houseboat was floating, and bumping gently against the pilings.
As we sat in front of the big picture window, talking, Sushi quietly came and landed on the piling in front of the big picture window. He sat there in silence, looking out over the marsh and shimmering water as we were. He turned his head once and gazed at us through the window for a long time with that mysterious, unblinking owl stare. As quickly as he came, he disappeared again, gliding on whispering wings over the glassy black water.
We didn't think much about the owl's appearance. We were used to visits from Sushi, and were always pleased to see him. Sometimes he stayed longer than others. We continued our conversation. I don't know what made me look up when I did, but there gliding back across the water toward the boat was Sushi. "Steve! Steve! Look! Right behind Sushi, gliding in the moonlight over the twinkling water, was another owl, identical to Sushi.
It wasn't an optical illusion. Our neighbor had seen two owls! Sushi had found a mate. The incredible pair of owls swooped over the water and made a pass right in front of the big bay window, with Sushi in the lead. Then, they flapped silently off into the dark shadows of the pine forest. Sushi had brought his mate right in front of the window on purpose. He wanted us to see his new friend.
We were both ecstatic. Whatever we couldn't teach Sushi, a wild mate could. The mate would help find a nest, teach Sushi new things to eat. Hopefully, as we always dreamed, there would be baby owls in the future. What a gift it was to watch the two owls flying in sync together over the moon-drenched water.
Little did we know, it was the last time we would ever see Sushi.
As happy as I was for the owl, I began to mourn our loss. For a month I walked the property calling "Soooooshi... Soooooooooshi!" But, the owl never came. I sensed the owl was near. But, once Sushi found his mate, he never returned to people again. All of the neighbors sightings stopped at the same time. Steve would give me that LOOK. The look that says, "I know you miss Sushi... so do I." But, he didn't say anything. Grown men don't miss owls.
The next frigid full moon night came. Sushi had been gone a month. Steve had been outside. He came back into the house and said... "Come with me." We walked out in the frosted grass and stood in the shadow of the giant pine forest that borders our property. The moon was enormous. It was clear and cold. There were no clouds hiding the diamonds in the sky. The stars were so bright and close it seemed as if you could pluck one from the heavens. The evening was deathly still. We stood there in silence for a while. Shivering, I wondered why Steve wanted me to come outside. I assumed it was to look at that incredible moon and crystal stars over the tops of the towering pines. Then, I heard it. Two owls! They were calling back and forth to each other. "Whooo... whoooo... .who-cooks-for-you... whoooo." One call was deep and mellow. The other call was light and melodic. Sushi had finally learned how to hoot! I stood there with tears running my face. Sushi was fine. Sushi was free. Sushi was truly wild.
I made a promise to myself standing there in the white glow of the moonlight. I would never call the owl again. How difficult it must be for Sushi to hear me calling. He had to feel the tug of being with a wild mate, or being with humans. Sushi had made the right choice. I said goodbye to Sushi that night, and wished him luck. I was quite sure he could see me and hear me from his perch high atop the pines. I've never called Sushi again.
All the research on owl behaviour states that it is very bad for owls to imprint on humans, because they will never go back to the wild. What all the research neglected to to say was that humans can imprint on owls, and lose their hearts to these magnificent, mischievous, magical creatures. We had imprinted on Sushi. He will forever be in our hearts.
Maybe, one day in Springtime, I'll walk out to the houseboat and find Sushi perched on Sushi's tree with three really ugly, fluffy owlets. I can dream can't I? Till that day comes when I see Sushi again, I will miss the owl the rest of my life. I only hope someday, someone else will bring me a silver down-feathered ping-pong ball to raise. This time, I'll be a better mommie.
Shortly after saying goodbye to Sushi, we found this wonderful piece of art at Artikles Gallery in Saint Augustine, Florida. The artist, Deborah Kosa, generously gave me permission to reproduce it here.
The caption reads:
"Dark eyes may see before the night
Together they soar before true flight
To see the stars. To feel the moon.
What a gift they have...
may ours come soon... "
The owl with the tear in its eye reminds me of Sushi, torn between his kind and our kind. I'm glad his kind won.
Notes and Credits
Author's note: This is a true story. Although Sushi is referred to as a "him" in this story, the author has no way of knowing whether the owl was a boy or a girl. The author's impression is that Sushi was actually a girl.
A very special thank you to Deane Lewis for such an excellent web-site, The Owl Pages, and for encouraging me to submit this story. Also, a very special thank you to my husband, Steve, and to the "Keepers of the Owl", Tommy "Animal" Prevost, Blanche Little and Sherry Garbarini.
Susi Sax at Designs On Gallery, Fernandina Beach, Florida.
Jimmy Bliss, Orlando, Florida.
Steve and Ellen Ensley, Fernandina Beach, Florida.
Deborah Kosa, Artikles Gallery, St. Augustine, Florida.
A quick disclaimer from The Owl Pages:
We strongly discourage trying to raise or rehabilitate an owl without the proper rehabilitation license and experience. If you find an injured or orphaned owl, we suggest you refer to our Rescue & Rehabilitation Section.