By Jaydeep Patil
The light was fading and the birds were returning home. There was a knock on the door and the cold air burst through as a stranger entered. He was carrying something in his hands – a small bundle. He shook his head as though he was trying to shake off the cold. As he walked into the light, I thought I saw the bundle move. I asked him the purpose of his visit. He kept the bundle on the table and simply pointed at it. I moved in for a closer look as the bundle continued to squirm. Just as I was about to remove the cloth: CLACKK!! The sound was sudden and sharp – like a trap snapping shut. In a sudden movement the cloth fell off and there sat the most adorable looking ball of fluff staring at me with big, round golden eyes.
So there we were with an Indian eagle owl (Bubo benghalensis) fledgling sitting on my desk. It wasn’t old enough to take a shot at flight. Maybe it was just rough-housing with its nest mates and accidentally fell down. While Bilal (our Vidarbha Tiger Project veterinarian) was busy giving it a check-up, the stranger recounted how he had found the owl. Among other things, he mentioned that he regularly saw a big owl in the area around his dhaba. He said that one of his employees knew where the owls sat all day. That caught my interest. If I find the exact spot where he found the fledgling, I mused, I could look around for the nest and put it back. It sounded so simple in my head – locate, re-unite and return. Now personally I would’ve loved hand-raising it and training it to do my evil bidding while I sat on my evil throne, twirling my evil moustache. But then I thought, “Eh… Maybe a tiger would suit me better. After all, Jon Snow’s Direwolf and Daenerys’ Dragons have set the bar really high”. And so we decided to try and reunite the tiny tot with its mother.
Generally, eagle owls nest in high places like rock ledges or something similar. But here, there was not a crag, cliff or crevice in sight
Bilal and I left for the place our visitor said he had found the owl. In this case, finding the nest was my biggest concern so the exact location of rescue was crucial. As we turned the corner around a rice mill, all I saw were open fields. Generally, eagle owls nest in high places like rock ledges or something similar. But here, there was not a crag, cliff or crevice in sight; just a few lanky babool trees and a lot of bare rice fields. The sun had already set and we were looking around from tree to tree for any owl activity. I was checking under trees to see if there were any droppings; we also searched the canopies with flashlights to see if we could at least spot the parents. At this point I was getting slightly nervous. There was a baby owl sitting in a box in the car, waiting to be reunited with its parents – parents that I wasn’t having much luck finding.
Minutes felt like hours and darkness engulfed the horizon. The place had fallen silent as a crypt. The cold night air began placing its icy fingers around us. The only light now was from the roofs of the towering storehouses of the rice mill, some 200 metres across the fields. And then it hit me.
ROOFS! They’re just as good as a rock ledge or a high cliff. Owls do nest on tall buildings, except for the orthodox ones – they usually prefer the traditional nest on a cliff. Just as the thought crossed my mind, there was the faintest sound overhead. I looked up and saw a shadow flying in the direction of the mill. It was an owl: an eagle owl. It had flown past with barely a whisper. I watched a silhouette land on the very edge of the tin roof of the storehouse. I ran towards it through the fields only to be met by a 10-foot-high concrete wall. Using the flashlight I tried to locate the owl on the roof. At the very corner of the building there was a pillar. Just as the pillar met the roof, there was a little space in between. And in that space was a pair of angry looking eyes. Before I could turn the flashlight off the owl opened its wings and dived – disappearing into the dark. As it left, I saw two more pairs of golden eyes squinting at me. Two little fledglings stared at the light curiously.
I dashed to the car and picked up the box in which the baby owl was waiting. We went to the gate of the rice mill only to be met by a very disgruntled security guard. I explained to him my purpose and told him to call his employer so I could be allowed in the mill premises. For a whole minute, we just stood there staring at each other in utter silence which was breached by him scratching his elbow. Finally he made the call and the owner agreed to let me in. As Bilal and I went to the particular storehouse, I started looking around for a ladder. Bilal called out to me form near the corner of the storehouse. He was standing behind a huge pile of rice sacks stacked over each other. I ran over to him, thinking he had located a ladder. There was no ladder there as I turned the corner. Instead, there was another little baby owl just sitting on the ground. I opened the box and we placed the second one in it too after a quick check up.
And then I looked up. In all my excitement I had forgotten to look up. In front of me was a concrete wall, 40 feet high. I couldn’t see any access to the pillar on which the nest sat. While I was trying to figure out a plan of action, the owner of the mill arrived. He was very moved by what we were trying to do and decided to help. I asked him if they had a long enough ladder, to which his reply was: “Electrician is coming”. He said that with a strange sense of calm and confidence. Sure enough, the electrician did arrive – a tall, skinny guy named Dinesh. The owner of the mill gave Dinesh, the Electrician two pieces of information: 1. There were birds in the box and 2. He was supposed to keep them in the nest at the top of the pillar.
As Dinesh reached the top of the pillar he turned around and held on to the edge of the roof which protruded ahead of the wall.
Before I could ask him what his plan was Dinesh had already procured a ladder, climbed on top of the stack of rice sacks, placed the ladder on top of the sacks. The security guard was clambering up the sacks to hold the ladder in position. I called out to Dinesh, asking about his plan; after all, he had placed the ladder on the wrong pillar. When he didn’t reply, I looked at the owner of the mill for some explanation. But he too was silent, with an odd smile on his face. I felt a sudden grip of fear as I saw Dinesh climb up the ladder. I noticed he had a rope over his shoulder. Was he going to swing from one pillar to the other? I could not fathom what stunt he was about to perform. I felt a knot in my stomach, twisting tighter with every rung he climbed. As he reached the top of the pillar he turned around and held on to the edge of the roof which protruded ahead of the wall. Placing his feet on a ventilator window, he stood up. Now his back was to the wall and he was leaning away from it. He started moving sideways towards the next pillar, using the roof and the long ventilator window to hold his weight. When he reached the corner pillar, he threw one end of the rope down. I realised at that moment that my mouth was open in awe. I came to my senses and knew what I had to do. I tied the box to the rope and he pulled it up. He climbed on to the pillar and from his precarious perch, placed the two fledglings back in the nest.
I waited till he climbed down and then went and hugged him. I could feel the knot in my stomach loosen slowly. One by one I thanked everyone for all they had done and soon they all left. I stayed back though; my job wasn’t done. I had to make sure that the parents returned to the nest and accepted the fledglings – all of them. I waited in the cold, staring at the nest. The owls were having a reunion hug. Suddenly one of them, the biggest of the lot, turned towards me and walked to the very edge of the pillar. It sat there and gazed at me in an acknowledging sort of way, almost as though it recognised me. Just then I saw a shadow return. The mother owl had come back with a rat in her beak. She seemed to have noticed the sudden reappearance of her lost babies. She dropped the rat she was carrying. Whether she meant to do that or it happened out of sheer astonishment and joy, I do not know. But when she finally settled down and pulled them closer I knew her babies were safe under her wings.
The author is an Assistant Field Officer with Wildlife Trust of India’s Vidarbha Tiger Project.