A Friend in Need

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“A Friend in Need,” Friend, Oct. 1983, 20

A Friend in Need

The gray squirrel leaped from limb to limb in a frantic attempt to escape the terrible talons of its attackers, but to no avail. The great horned owls were quick and sure. Like twin lightning bolts they struck their mark, with beak and claw doing their awful work with deadly precision. And then, as if adding insult to injury, the intruders took over the squirrel’s nest, high atop a towering cottonwood tree behind Grandma and Grandpa’s farmhouse.

At first Grandpa was upset by the owls’ brazen behavior, but he began to appreciate them more and more as the days passed. The owls were excellent hunters. Rabbits, gophers, and field mice made up the major portion of their diet.

Intrigued by the owls’ activities, Grandpa and Uncle Bruce soon found themselves observing the birds every day through binoculars. In January they noticed that the great birds were keeping close to their nest and that one of them seemed to be sitting in it at all times. Later that spring Grandpa and Uncle Bruce spotted a fuzzy little face peering back at them from the nest.

One night there was a windstorm, and the next day they couldn’t see the baby owl. They searched the ground around the tree to see if the owlet had been blown out of the nest, and sure enough, it had.

The ground where the baby owl had fallen was cold and very hard. Grandpa figured that the owlet had lain there for about twenty-four hours. He and Uncle Bruce fixed up a plastic ice-cream bucket with some straw. Then they carefully wrapped a warm towel around the baby bird, placed it inside the bucket, and waited.

For about twenty minutes nothing happened. Then the little owl started to move and to make a tiny peeping sound. Half an hour later it was actively wriggling about, so they decided to feed it something—but what? Most birds like worms, but the ground was still frozen. Then an idea struck them: Perhaps the baby owl would think that noodles left over from their supper were worms. When Uncle Bruce dangled one before the little bird, it opened its beak and gulped it right down. Then it opened its mouth wide for another one. Soon the owl had devoured almost a cupful of noodles. For dessert it ate a teaspoonful of hamburger!

Having saved the baby owl’s life, Grandpa and Uncle Bruce had to figure out what to do with it. They tried to get it back into its nest. But the nest was too high to reach, even with their tallest ladder. Their next idea was to build a new nest. Not far away was a dead tree with a hollow in a branch about five feet off the ground. Uncle Bruce lined this cavity with straw and set the owl inside. The next day the bird was still there.

To be sure that it got enough to eat, Grandpa and Uncle Bruce continued to feed it. Grandpa’s dog, Queenie, would catch mice, so Uncle Bruce fed them to the owl after he had skinned them and cut them into bite-size pieces. The owl ate about half a mouse each time, nibbling Uncle Bruce’s fingers in the process. By the next morning the other half of the mouse would be gone too. Periodically other bird feathers were found in the nest, so Uncle Bruce and Grandpa knew that the parent owls were feeding their little offspring too.

After some weeks the little owl’s parents were often seen watching from another tree as Uncle Bruce fed the owlet. Whenever Uncle Bruce approached the growing bird, its parents started to click their beaks nervously. The little one would imitate them, and now and then it would also hiss like a snake. Finally it acquired a natural fear of man, so Uncle Bruce stopped feeding it. The parents took over completely, and Uncle Bruce and Grandpa just checked on the owl now and then to see if it was all right.

In time the baby owl grew to be as large as its parents. Then one day it was gone. Thinking that its wing feathers were not big enough to allow it to fly very far, Grandpa and Uncle Bruce searched the woods around the farm. But they found no trace of it.

Many months passed and memories of the young owl began to fade. Then one evening as they were sitting on their porch, Grandma and Grandpa heard a soft hooting sound from the direction of the old willow tree. Going over to investigate, they were greeted by two pairs of great round eyes. Yes, the owl had returned with a mate of its own to live where it had been so well cared for as a helpless little bird.

Photos by Bruce Wakefield

[photo]The baby owl after it was first found.

The baby owl likes the home that Grandpa and Uncle Bruce made for it in the old willow tree.

The owl grows bigger and bigger as it is fed.

These eyes can see especially well at night!

The little owl sits on a sunny branch to see what the daylight world is all about.

Grandpa and the owl have become “chums” and go for a stroll together.