My Very First Felony

We were walking one evening in our Missouri neighborhood when we saw a white puffball in the grass.

Several dogs – our neighborhood seemed to let them run free  – had surrounded the puffball, were barking at it. What was it? It looked fragile and frightened. A baby owl!

It looked just like this, though this isn’t our video.

To save it from the dogs, my husband picked it up and we took it home.  This was in the ancient days before internet so we went to the library to find out what owls eat.

Owls feed mainly on furry animals such as mice, rats, moles, squirrels, rabbits, and even skunks.  They often swallow the smaller animals whole.

Okay. We had no supply of such creatures.  But we knew someone who raised rabbits, and she gave us bags of frozen bunny pieces.  We bought chicken parts – like liver, gizzard, and neck. And that’s what Athena (as we named her though we had no idea of its gender) ate for the next two months.  She would cough up what she didn’t digest in neat little pellets of bones and fur.

She spent the day perched on top of our bedroom closet door, under which we spread newspaper.  Mostly she slept, or seemed to sleep, her big eyes closed.  She was very lightweight, nothing but eyes and lots of feathers.

There was no danger of imprinting on humans. She didn’t like us. She clacked her beak furiously when we came close, to tell us to get away.  She also clacked at our dog so we kept the dog out of the room.  The cats stayed out – they didn’t like the owl one bit.  Especially after she grew into her adult size with a wingspan of almost four feet.

Towards the end of the summer, at dusk she would become very active and agitated, darting at the window, her hunting instincts on high alert.  One night we had just turned out the lights to sleep.  As my husband turned over, he raised his elbow in the air, and instantly, silently, she swooped onto it, catching it in her talons.

It was time to release her.  Could she survive in the wild? Could she hunt live prey? We bought two mice at the pet store; she captured them both and ate them.  Next my husband brought in a dozen grasshoppers and put them on the floor, on a sheet.  She found and ate every one.

Still, I needed a bit of reassurance from an expert.  I called the Fish and Wildlife Service.  The call went like this:

Me: “Hello, I have been raising a barred owl for the past few months.  Do you know how old it needs to be before I can release it into the woods?

FWS guy: “Ma’m, can I please have your name and address?”

Me (suspicious): “Why? I just want to find out if this owl will survive.”

FWS guy: “Because barred owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and you have committed a felony by taking it into your possession.

Me: hangs up.  Opens nearest window.  Without hesitation, Athena flies out, into heavy rain, into the trees.

I have no doubt that she survived handily as we lived on the edge of a heavily wooded state park teeming with wildlife.   In fact, about six months later, I looked out my kitchen window.  The trees were bare and I could see quite far into the woods.  Lined up on a tree branch and looking right at me were six barred owls.  Surely one of them was Athena. I imagined her saying, “My friends, I know it’s hard to believe, but right there’s my childhood home.”

As for us, well, penalties for violations of the MBTA can go up to $15,000 and 6 months imprisonment for common violations. Is there a statute of limitations?  If not, well – I’m a fiction writer! Made it all up!

If you ever hear this call, you’ll know it’s a barred owl vocalizing “who cooks for you”!


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