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Under my wing

Hoot was quite the most distinguished guest ever to grace my spare bathroom. I'll never know why I called him Hoot; he never made a sound resembling a hoot all the time he was with me. He would cluck sometimes, when I was late with his dinner; and once, when he found he couldn't hunt for himself, and had been without food for three days, he gave a strange squawk of desperation to let me know of his plight. That day I learned tht young owls do not learn to hunt on their own, but are taught by their mothers.

When Hoot came into my life, and bathroom, I wasn't overjoyed. However, I had been the manager of an animal shelter in Galveston County for a number of years, so it was my normal fate to be given the stranded, strayed, and neglected animals of the area. I was used to the midnight calls about everything that creeps, crawls, flies, or walks. And so it was that, when a neighborhood child came by to tell me that a young owl was starving and injured down by the old shell hopper below my house, I went with her to see what it was all about. Sure enough, we found a half-starved baby owl with an injured leg and more fluff than fathers. We brought Hoot home and installed him the bathtub.

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The question now became "How am I going to feed him?" I knew that owls eat rodents and sometimes smaller birds. There was nothing I could do about that, so I made hamburger pellets and stuffed these down his throat. This worked well for a while, and he was soon scrambling onto the rim of the bathtub and surveying the spare room. He must have thought the green carpet there was grass , for he made every effort to reach it. When he finally did, he hopped about on it with obvious joy. For quite a while I thought owls always hopped, but later, as his legs grew stronger, he walked pigeon-toed like a parrot.

I soon discovered that Hoot liked company. As he began to gain the use of his wings, he half-flew, half-scrambled, onto the chair where I sat and stayed close to me. Sometimes he perched on my knee, at other times he climbed to the back of the chair, grabbed my hair in his talons, and combed it with his beak. Toward evening he became a bird of prey. Fixing his gaze on an imaginary quarry , he would pounce and try to carry it off. Carpets and rugs became his "victims ," and the daily newspaper suffered to the point of disintegration.

Hoot continued to grow and grow. This sent me to the library to gather more information on owls. From everything I learned, it seemed I was raising a great horned owl. "This" the local authorities told me, "is quite impossible. These owls cannot be raised in captivity. They are too large and fierce." This set me to wondering, "Just which one of us is the captive -- Hoot or I? After Hoot had been with me for four months he could fly, but spent his time sitting outside watching the birds in the yard from the vantage point of the porch railing. He watched them on the ground, in the trees, and flying in the sky. His body never move, but his head followed them up, down, sideways, or directly behind him. His eyes dilated or contracted, depending on the nearness or distance of his focus. He still made no effort to hunt, and was always on time for meals.

Because I worked, Hoot had to fit in with my daytime schedule, though he obviously felt at his best with nightfall. If I took a lunch-break nap, he would join me. Making the dining room table his bed, he would lie, wings outstretched, head down, and legs straight out behind him. From tip to tip his wings measured four feet, and his claws were like an eagle's.

One evening Hoot missed a meal. He flew to the housetop, and from there to the TV antenna, and did not come down for his supper. The radio gave continuous warnings of troubled weather; about midnight the storm blew in. Lightning cut the sky and the rain came down in a steady sheet. Against a dark background of tall trees I could see Hoot's silhouette, soaked with rain and pencil thin. When morning came, the hot Texas sun rose like a bloodred orange in the east and Hoot came down for breakfast!

After this his excursions became a little bolder. He joined me on my walks. When I took the dogs down to the river near my home, he faithfully came along flying from tree to tree, making mock attacks on the dogs as we went.

As time went on I saw less and less of Hoot in the daytime, but often felt his piercing eyes watching me. In the evenings he came winging through a gap in the trees, or dropped from dense foliage to land on my shoulder or knee, but never once did I get a scratch from his huge talons.

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There was no mistaking Hoot's identity now. All agreed that he was indeed a great horned owl. The problem for me became "How am I going to return him to the wild where he belongs?" When Hoot was seven months old, he solved this problem by himself. One evening he did not come home, and when he came winging in the next morning, he was not hungry. He sat on the hood of my car and brooded until the late evening, then he floated off into the tree shadows like a great moth.

The next day I was awakened by a loud bang as something hit the front door. It was Hoot. Now changed into a living fury, he charged into the living room. Afraid to touch him, I fetched a long stick and gently guided him through the house and out of the back door. He flew to the top of my car, and there regurgitated a ball of fur, feathers, and small bones. He had at last hunted for himself!

That evening Hoot left, and he never returned, though once, as I walked by the river in the very dim twilight, a large bird dropped to the level of my head , then disappeared into the gloa ming. I like to think it was Hoot!

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