To people who work in outdoor jobs, boxes can be scary things. They are carried anxiously towards you, held at arm length to avoid jiggling the contents. The faces bobbing above the box are filled with nervous excitement and concern – the mouth a pale “O” of part-formed accounts and explanations. Birds seem to cop for more box journeys than other taxa. Normally, the lid is lifted to reveal a fallen nestling or unfortunate adult that has struck a pane of glass. Sometimes, it is a rabbit hit by a car or a hedgehog that rose too early from its winter sleep.
On this occasion it was owls. My surprise was absolute. They looked like two very mouldy grapefruits; completely spherical and covered in flaky grey fuzz. They were rather wet – the smaller of the two also sported a layer of mud over its growing feathers. The owls did not look pleased to see me. At the back of their black eyes, a disapproving blue light swam. The largest of the pair clicked its beak. The younger owl seemed cold and disinterested.
It is not unusual to find tawny owlets on the ground – indeed, like many other species of bird they will depart the nest before they are fully qualified aeronauts. They often fall as they clamber flightless through the canopy. In the majority of situations, it is best to leave them where they are – or apply the same common sense that you would use with an ordinary garden bird. Tawny owlets are normally quite capable of getting up off the ground to safety. This pair was found at the edge of a mature plantation; they must have struggled to climb the smooth, tall trees in time to escape Mull’s infamous spring weather. I lifted each one to check its condition. They were chilled and lethargic, but otherwise well grown.
Once the owls had dried and been gently warmed, they peered myopically out of my laundry basket. Their posture had changed from a moribund slump to something more dignified. They were comically hostile; but not too proud to scoff the shreds of rabbit hide and mice that I dangled enticingly above their beaks. These latter would be swallowed whole right down to the tail, which then protruded from the corner of their gape like a Winston Churchill cigar.
Sadly, the smallest owl died on the second night. He didn’t seem to be digesting his meals like the other, and went downhill very quickly in the small hours. Finding another owl for the second chick to be reared with was of paramount importance. It is not good practice to rear young birds in isolation, since they become too familiar with their keeper and then cannot be released.
Happily, my friend Sue provided the perfect solution. The owlet is now safely installed in a large aviary at Corrie Meadows, with an adult tawny to reinforce his avian identity. Fingers crossed he will be gracing our night skies in a few weeks time!
Glengorm Wildlife Steward
New Home: here we are just getting ready to drive to Corrie Meadows.