The Owl Pages

A city girl's initiation into owldom

By Josephine Scandi

Owl encounters

I had just moved into my newly purchased villa in the countryside just outside Rome when my car broke down. My neighbors offered me a lift into town that morning. Waiting outside their gate around 7.30 am, I noticed a marvellous bird perched on the telephone line above me. I had never seen the likes of this feathered creature - flat white face, white belly and long, long legs! There it perched, peering down at me with perky curiosity. I was amazed by its unusual beauty and waved hello. She continued to "size me up". As my neighbors had told me that Little Owls lived in the area, I took the wondrous creature to be a Little Owl. That was early November 2002.

Barn Owl
Barn Owl - photo © Riccardo Di Paola

Four and a half months later, I woke up before dawn, must have been 5 am, to look outside my bedroom window from the third floor. The garden below was lit by moonlight. I was gazing at the beauty of the stillness of the morning in the countryside, when the moonlit panorama was pierced by a huge bird. It dived from my right into a cavity of the wall of my lower garden to my left. I had not even been aware of those holes in the wall till then! I ran down with a flashlight to see what it could have been. There were three holes in the wall. The one the bird had dived into had nothing to show me. The next one did - I caught a glimpse of a wing with hues of colors I had never seen before seconds before the creature slipped away into the dark depths of the cavity: tawny with circular specks of blue. Having rescued a hawk and a pheasant as a child, I knew it had to be a wild bird, but what kind of a wild bird? And a wild bird that lives in the cavities of walls?!

Barn Owl
Barn Owl © Riccardo Di Paola

That event changed my life. I have always loved and respected nature, grew up with cats, dogs, bunnies (never had birds in cages) but having lived in big cities, was a total ignoramus about wild creatures, be they feathered or furry. The next few weeks had me delving into a frenzied search for information on this wondrous creature - I navigated the web, contacted ornithologists, spoke with newly acquainted friends of the area. I was amazed by all the species of owls in the world! Till then, "owls" for me were mysteriously fascinating raptors of the night with tawny feathers, tufts for ears, and yellow eyes; birds which would "hoot" instead of "chirp" or "shriek". Information provided on the Owl Pages and those from ornithologists and friends led me to believe that the creature might possibly be a Barn Owl. Could I have such a wondrous bird in my garden?

A friend of mine and his son, a birdwatcher and fantastic photographer, came with other friends to mount a birdwatching session in my garden. We waited and waited until the bats came out. The Little Owls came flying by, too, and I was able to confirm that what I had seen some four months earlier was NOT a Little Owl. No movement at all from the cavities in the wall. No sign of the Barn Owl. Then, just as darkness was falling upon us, a bird flew out of one of the holes in my garden wall, the one that was furthest from our position. It was out and gone in a flash and only one member of our gang managed to see its face, heart shaped, white and flat, before it fluttered out of sight into the night. Confirmation that a Barn Owl shared my home with me sent me into ecstasy - we opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate the event. The following weeks saw me delving into discovering the world of owls, and the Barn Owl in particular.

Sightings of the Barn Owl after that were scarce, except for very particular "private moments", but the Little Owls and I became fond friends. Every day, at dusk, she would come fluttering into my lower garden, no more than 1.5 meters above my head, screeching out her lungs, to perch on the telephone pole above and scream out at our dogs below (my Doberman and mutt, the two dobs and mutt of my neighbors). She would carry on lengthy and loud "conversations" with her spouse from one tree to another. She would also "attack" some of my 30+ cats strolling near the cavities of the wall in my lower garden. I thought she was just showing off, flaunting her "airborne supremacy" over the ground-bound cats. Little did I know that she was simply protecting her brood in the nest in the wall cavities. The Little Owls brought so much laughter into my garden, into my soul! I worried about the consequences of co-habitation between 30+ cats, 2 dogs and owls... would one of them suffer? Could one of them fall victim to the other? These fears were quelled with time.

Little Owl
Little Owl - photo © Riccardo Di Paola

While the piercing calls and screeching of the Little Owls would be with us from dusk through practically noon of the next day, the calls of the barn owl were audible only after 10 pm. All summer long, I sat out in the cool refreshing nights in complete darkness, so as to not disturb the owls, to listen to the chatter of the Little Owls and somewhat blood chilling calls and hissing sounds of the Barn Owls. I could hear the Barn Owls, I could find their pellets every single day, but I could not see them...

Then, one night, a terrible night, following horrendous news from the "family leftovers" I had, I sat down for my usual night watch in the company of my cats and dogs. My Doberman and mutt were at my feet, and my cats were fighting for pole position on my lap... my heart was heavy and I broke into tears. There I was bawling my eyes out, feeling so miserable inside and out, when wings, spanning at least a meter, silently cut the star and moon lit sky barely 2 meters above my head! Not a sound, just these dark wings gliding right over me, to disappear beyond the other end of my garden! They were the wings of my Barn Owl! It seemed as though the Barn Owl wanted to tell me "Hey there girl! Look this way! Look at me, how I fly. See how beautiful I am. Don't look inside, where the pain is, look at me. Look out, not in." My heart skipped a beat and my tears broke into smiles and laughter - how could one cry and grovel in misery in the face of such a wondrous sight?! The wings were huge, so it must have been a female, which meant that a nest was in the making as baby Barn Owls? That thought, as the sighting seconds before, cheered my spirits. I toasted to the health of the Barn Owl, cuddled my cats and dogs, saluted the Little Owls and headed for bed with a peaceful heart.

The following morning woke up early after a wonderfully restful night of sleep. Heading into the bathroom on the ground floor, I happened to look outside the bay windows overlooking my lower garden. And there was the male Barn Owl (he was smaller than the one I had seen the night before) fluttering ever so delicately on to the ridge of one of the cavities of the wall to my left! He was absolutely beautiful and what was utterly amazing was that he was blissfully nonchalant about the some 10 cats lazily strolling about less than one and half meters below him! He disappeared into the wall just as he touched down on the opening of the cavity. It was a lovely spectacle. I now knew that the Barn Owls were nesting in those cavities.

A month or so after that, there I was sitting in total darkness in the garden, sipping my glass of white wine in the company of my cats and dogs, listening to the Little Owls at a distance, the Barn Owls a bit closer, when a blood curdling sound, new to me, cut through the soothing darkness of the night. The sound, something between the hiss of an adult Barn Owl and the screeching of a Little Owl, came from less than 1 meter away, but from ground level. I jumped up to barely catch sight of something my big white cat, Ruby, had brought me. It was pitch dark, but could make out something white fluttering on the ground right in front of Ruby's nose. I lunged for Ruby to block him and shooed the dogs and the other cats away to scoop up the little thing into my hands. It fit perfectly into the palms of my hands. Never, ever had I touched such a heavenly soft and downy entity! BUT how it clawed and bit me, far worse than the biting and clawing of cats! I could not resist the pain so wrapped the little thing up in my T-shirt, and ran for the house to get a flashlight. I put on the lights of my porch to see a snowy white-feathered creature with a horrendous beaked face peering up at me from the folds of my T-shirt! Its feathers were so soft and downy, perhaps the likes of the hair, feathers of Angels?! It was a baby Barn Owl that had fallen out of its nest in the wall of my lower garden. I was frightened it might risk an "imprinting" with me, so ran off with the flashlight to place him back in his nest after controlling that he had suffered no injuries from Ruby. When I placed him on the ridge of the cavity, he peered at me, peered inside, from where his sibling was hissing out to him, peered back at me to flip flop away silently into the deep hollow of the cavity. I never saw him again, but his hissing and that of his sibling/siblings were music to my ears in the nights to come!

Having discovered that I had become the mother of a family of Barn Owls, I organized a party to celebrate the event the following week for the 4th of July, inviting my bird watcher friends. They came armed with video cameras and still shot cameras of all sorts. My birdwatcher friends gulped down the Independence Day dinner in a flash to mount their watch. They braved silently through the night right up to 2.30 am to barely catch sight of the Little Owls. No sign or sound whatsoever of the Barn Owls, even though we could hear the little ones hissing from their nest. When the bird watchers left, I sat out for another hour. Less than 10 minutes after my friends left, both the Little Owls and the Barn Owls were calling out right and left! I swore then to never, ever disturb them with the presence of photographers or any such intruders on our territory. I later found out that whenever my neighbors had their daughter and son in law over for the weekend, the owls would immediately turn silent each and every time one of these two "newcomers" would venture out into their garden during the night! These owls are aware of who are genuine local residents, and therefore "part of the local fauna", and those who are not!!!

A few weeks after that, I got some more bad news from my "family leftovers". Once again, I cried my heart out in my star lit garden in the company of my cats and dogs. Once again, my desperation was reigned in by the arrival of a Barn Owl. He/she crossed my garden, not far above my head, from one side to the other, this time to perch on the wall on the other end of my garden. He/she perched there, looking my way. The Barn Owl seemed to beckon to me once again to look out not in, to seek joy not sorrow. As that "telepathic message" sank inside of me, the Barn Owl took off in sheer silence into the dark, dark night, leaving me unburdened of my sad and weary thoughts. I blew a kiss to the Barn Owl, went to check out on the baby Barn Owls, who were hissing their hearts out, and went to bed calm and more hopeful about the future.

The following month, August, a real deadbeat period in Italy, I devoted my night hours to yet more "cocooning" and soul healing with the help of my Little Owls and barn owls. They were constantly there, every single night, with their screeching, hissing. I felt as though they wanted me to take part in the excitement of their hunting sprees, the joy of their night play, to put aside my personal woes and just enjoy them, life, the stars, the moon, the whispering of the cedars, the oaks, the wondrous summer nights we were sharing. The little owls were loquaciously omnipresent, while the Barn Owls seemed to be in "telepathic contact" with me, if such a thing can be said of owls (I believe we can). And they did indeed help me heal my wounds!

Little Owl
Little Owl - photo © Riccardo Di Paola

One hot noon of August, I was cleaning up my lower garden when I felt I was being watched. My neighbors were not home, no farmer had come to tend to the cultivated land nearby. No-one was in sight and I was home alone with my cats and dogs. Yet there was no cat or dog nearby. Who or what was watching me, and from where, scrutinizing every single move I made?! I carefully scanned the some 120 square meters of that part of my garden to glimpse something tawny in one of the cavities of the wall! I ran towards that hole just in time to catch sight of the wing of the Little Owl before it fled into the depths of the cavity! For days and weeks to come, she would watch me from that cavity for as long as I was in that part of the garden during the daytime. I would give her my greetings in very loud Italian from where I was, either feeding the cats or sweeping the garden, and she would just sit there watching me, cocking her head at every move of mine. Can you believe that the Little Owls (Athene noctua) and the Barn Owls (Tyto alba) shared the wall cavities in my garden as their nesting homes (the wall is some 18 meters long and the tunnels and cavities inside could stretch for a meter or so in depth within the wall)?!

Their presence by day and night kept me going throughout the horrendous summer I had. In daylight hours, I would find decapitated mice near their nests, scores of pellets here and there. At night, their calls and songs would soothe my bleeding soul in the garden, lull me to sleep in bed.

Little Owl
Little Owl - photo © Riccardo Di Paola

This joyous co-habitation suddenly came to an abrupt end in late August. All of a sudden, no curious eyes framed by feathers would scrutinize my garden chores in the lower part of my garden, neither screeches nor hissing calls would break the silence of the nights - I went cold turkey!

A couple of excruciatingly never-ending weeks had to pass by before my night garden vigil was awarded by the calls of both the Little Owls and the barn owls. They had moved out of their nests into the rolling hills just above my villa. They were training their little ones hunting and survival skills. I could clearly distinguish the difference between the calls of the young owls and those of their parents. Their calls were joyful, confident. It almost seemed that both the Little Owls and the Barn Owls were proudly introducing me to their owlets! A truly joyous, joyous night!

Since then (it is November now), I hear the Little Owls regularly, practically every evening (it has become too cold now to sit out in my garden at night), the Barn Owls almost once a week. No more decapitated mice in sight, but the Barn Owls leave me a huge pellet in my lower garden at least once a week - as though to let me know that they are still there with me even though I no longer see or hear them as before.

The sharing of this home among myself, my dogs, cats, owls, toads and turtles for this first year has proved to be highly enriching and enlightening for all parties concerned. I have found new friends in Mother Nature - the Barn Owls and the Little Owls. They have introduced me to a whole new dimension of "the night world". These new friends of mine have so much in common with me - love of the silence and the darkness of the night, absolute need for privacy - far from curious eyes and ears, mistrust of all obnoxiously "loud" and insensitive human beings... I pulled through one of the saddest and toughest periods in my life, thanks to the company and comfort of my pets and owls. The cats have learned to respect the privacy of the owls after one of them, a healthy young male, was found dead from a heart attack right beneath the nest of the Barn Owls. Ruby, my cat, saved the life of the Barn Owlet by bringing the little thing to me after it had fallen out of its nest. The dogs have also learnt a lesson after having been exiled from the lower part of the garden (site of the owl nests) after I found a Little Owl owlet dead in the upper garden - it had been bitten by a dog (the dogs were punished with no food for two days). The owls' food supply is not at risk, as my cats are horrendous mousers and the only two who do hunt them down refuse to eat them. The owls are moreover safe from nasty human beings since my arrival in the area and seem to be aware of it.

In fact, I found out in the spring that my neighbors torched the cavities in my garden wall last year, when no one lived in my villa, to chase out the Little Owls, which are held to be harbingers of bad luck by Italians! I launched a diplomatic brainwashing program on these people as others nearby to convince them on the utility of owls to our eco-system, how Little Owls gobble up insects and smaller rodents, how Barn Owls keep the rodent count down. They are catching onto my enthusiasm for "owldom" and are showing signs of some appreciation for the local fauna and owls in particular.

My house is located right by a regional park. We have wild boars, badgers, porcupines, snakes, birds of all kinds as neighbors, otters in the waterfall just a walk away from my place... yet, so few locals respect these wonderful creatures. I have thus convinced the local park rangers to work with me to get more stringent EU norms respected in our area, perhaps even enlarge the perimeters of the park, so we can kick out hunters from the zone.

I miss the owls, their acoustically invasive presence so close to me, my house, their magical eyes glowing in the dark. I pray for their safety and good health. I pray that they may safely and joyfully continue to nest in my garden for years and years to come. After all, they settled in my place way before I moved in.

I eagerly look forward to the next nesting season and each time I hear the Little Owls, I wave hello and call out my greetings to them, and they screech back. The Barn Owls, instead, appear to continue to communicate with me through more subtle means... I "feel" their presence before hearing their calls. I know the Little Owls and the Barn Owls are watching over me, our home, and they know I have bonded with them.

Waterfalls approx. 700m below the villa I share with the owls, cats and dogs in my story

Page updated 2003-11-15