By Sally Blanchard   Illustration by Sally Blanchard                                                                                                                                                                                                          

A Passion for Birds

People often ask me how I became so interested in birds. I think that I was always interested in them. I had a wonderful Budgie when I was a child and I loved to watch the outdoor birds. The better question would be, “when did I become passionate about birds?” Actually, I could reverse this and the question might become, “when did birds become interested in me?”

My father was an Air Force Colonel and after my freshman year in college, he was reassigned to southern California. We were living on Long Island and I loved my college and didn't want to move but I had no choice. We moved into a wonderful but somewhat isolated house on a hill in Redlands, California right across from a hillside area called Smiley Heights. Many years before, this had been a sumptuous estate surrounded by olive and orange groves, but the estate grounds had become wild again. The first few months we lived there I didn’t have a car. I missed registration for the college of my choice and didn’t know anyone yet. I was pretty lonely and depressed. 

Time Spent Moping

I spent a lot of time walking around Smiley Heights and saw quails, pheasants, and lots of other birds plus a bobcat and a den of baby foxes. I also spent a lot of time sitting out at the edge of our property reading or just moping. One evening just after the sun had set, I saw something moving on the winding street below our property. It only took a second to realize that it was a large bird flying silently up the hill towards me. A second later I realized that it was a Great Horned Owl coming right at me. For a moment I was frightened but that moment passed quickly as the owl flew up and landed on the ground right next to me. He rotated his head and blinked at me with his huge eyes. I sat there stunned with no idea what to do. I was also in awe that such a situation was occurring. 

As I looked at him, he took a hop or two and ended up sitting in my lap. He fluffed his feathers and shook them all out a couple of times and continued blinking at me. I remember thinking, “What do you say to an owl sitting in your lap?” I said, “Who, who are you?” for lack of anything more profound to say. We sat together for what seemed like an eternity. I admired him as he ruffled his soft feathers and moved his head up and down and around. I slowly reached over and touched his chest and he seemed to enjoy the attention. Eventually, he hopped off of my lap, flapped his wings a few times, and then flew off to the hillside across the street.

What Had I Been Smoking?

It took me some time to gather my composure enough to get up. Once I did, I ran into the house and told my parents that an owl had just flown down and sat on my lap. My father sarcastically asked me what I had been smoking but the two of them got up and came out into the yard. We walked over to where the owl had visited me but, of course, there was no sign of him. As we were walking towards the front door, he appeared out of nowhere and silently flew down and it seemed as if he was trying to land on my mother’s head. I had never seen my mother run before and I never saw her run again, but she would have easily won the 10-meter dash. 

Snack Time

For the next few evenings, I sat in the same spot hoping he would come to visit me again. I neither saw him nor heard him. About a week later I was walking across the yard to my spot and he glided down in front of me and landed on a small tree branch that bent low with his weight. Then he flew off as silently as he had arrived. The next evening I decided to bring him something to bribe him down to visit. I made some small patties of raw hamburger combined with bread and egg. There was no Internet to look up the proper thing to feed him and I had no car to get to the library in hopes of getting any better information about what I should feed him. I didn’t even know he would eat anything from my hand. 

I sat in “our” spot and held out my hand in hopes that he would see the patty and fly down to me. Again he silently flew down and landed beside me. Then he hopped over and took the patty and devoured it. He ate all of the ones I had made. From that point on, he would come to me whenever I came out with his treats. 

A Great Way To Scare a Date Away
I was anxious to get away from the house so I went out with a pompous young Naval officer whom I found to be quite obnoxious. He was my escort at a recent Debutante's Ball where I was introduced to "Air Force Officer's Society" (Really!) He wanted another date and I really wasn’t interested. As we were standing at the front door talking, I asked him if he wanted to meet my pet owl. He laughed and said, “Yeah sure” as if he knew I was crazy. We walked out in the front yard and I reached my hand up and made a whistling noise I used to call the owl down. Out of the darkened sky, my feathered friend silently arrived and tried to land on the man’s head. He ran faster than my mother had and never asked me out again. That was fine with me. The owl was a lot better company anyway!

None of this explains why this owl chose to be my friend and this remained a puzzle to me for a couple of months. I had figured out that he was a fairly young owl because his feathers changed as I knew him. After a month or so passed, I saw him less frequently, and eventually, I only heard him on the hillside across the street. Then I began to hear the conversations of two owls and he completely stopped coming down to visit me. I was pleased to know that he wasn't dependent on me anymore.

Solving the Puzzle

Finally, I got a car and a part-time job. It was at this job that I met a woman who lived a street down the hill. The puzzle was solved. Her son had found two baby owls on the ground below a large tree after a wind storm. The babies were close to fledging but were not yet self-sufficient and there was no way he could return them to the nest. One of the babies died within the first week but he had been able to raise the other one until he could release it. He continued to call the bird down and feed him gradually decreasing the amount of food. Although her son was not sure the owl was ready to be on his own, he tried to make him self-sufficient because he had to go away to college. It was within a week after he had gone back to school that the owl paid me his awesome visit.

The time I spent with this temporarily tame owl had a great impact on my life. Not only did his visits make a lonely time bearable, but they were also a major contributing factor in developing my continuing passion for birds.




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