Only Two Owls, Part Two [Part One is here.]
When I reached home I got a cage for them which they never liked, so I allowed them to roam about my room at their own sweet will. They soon found congenial quarters in a couple of empty pigeon-holes in my desk, where they would sit by the hour while I was writing; but the moment l lay down my pen or pencil they would dart out like a couple of young pirates, pounce upon it and drag it back into the pigeon-hole, whirring in triumph; they would play hide-and-seek with each other in the dark corners of the room, under the furniture, and sometimes, as a special treat, I used to close all the doors and let a live mouse loose on the floor. The owls would rise and float, like a bit of thistle-down, just over the mouse, then drop suddenly on it fixing their strong little claws in its back; they did not torment their victim like a cat, but tore its head off at once and proceeded to make a meal of it.
I regret to be obliged to record the fact that, notwithstanding the very evident affection which existed between the two upon all other occasions, they relapsed into savagery when feeding; and the one who was fortunate enough to secure the mouse scolded the other until the unfortunate rodent was snugly tucked away where it could not be got at. I generally tried to have two live mice for them at a time, and all our neighbors and the near-by grocery stores were laid under contribution to meet the demand. One curious feature of their manner of eating mice was a never-failing source of amusement; they had a habit of bolting the head and fore-quarters first, and then swallowing the rest without tearing it into bits, with the result that they would stand with their little paunches swelled out to an enormous size, and the mouse’s tail sticking out of the corner of their mouths, for all the world like a fat old man who has finished his dinner and was enjoying his after-dinner cigar.
Their flight was absolutely noiseless, they seemed to float rather than fly; but they were very swift on the wing for short distances, as many a sparrow discovered to its cost. When I went to the Country for the summer I took them with me, and used to carry them in my pockets when I went out for walks. The English sparrows were becoming very plentiful about our place and were driving away the more desirable songbirds. With the active co-operation of Doctor and Judge I declared war upon the impudent foreigners, and when I came upon a party of the little feathered ragamuffins I would set my two plainsmen free. They would float down among the sparrows, and seldom failed to catch a couple. Sometimes in the excitement of the chase, if one of them failed to catch a sparrow, he would start off after the nearest song-bird; but a sharp call never failed to ‘bring him back, obediently, to my shoulder. It was in this matter of obedience that they showed the only difference in their dispositions. When recalled from the chase Judge would turn at once, circle about me and settle contentedly on my shoulder, but Doctor was more minded to have his own way. He would float off after a song-bird like a bit of down on the breeze; when he heard me call he would flap back to me as heavily as an old crow, and would further display his vexation by snapping his bill close to my ear.
While it was evident that the strong sunlight annoyed them they seemed to see quite as well in the daytime as at night and, naturally, all their hunting was done in the daylight, tho I tried to select cloudy or overcast days for their excursions. They never seemed to have a desire to get away and, indeed, I fancy it would have been difficult to have made them go very far from some member of the family. They would sit on the branch of a tree not far from my window, but at nightfall they sought the family sitting-room, where they made themselves comfortable on my mother’s lap. In the city they delighted in sitting, for hours at a time, on the window-sill watching the people passing in the street and conversing with each other in low, chirping monosyllables. They had a dove-like fondness for caressing each other and sat close, side by side, motionless except as from time to time they would turn their heads and rub their bills together.
One evening I was romping with the Doctor and he was wrestling with my finger, a play in which he took an especial joy. We were in the midst of our frolic when he lost his balance. I heard a slight snap and he fell over on his side; he picked himself up again and tried to continue his sport, but I saw that his right leg hung limp and helpless. I quickly examined him and discovered that it was broken just above the knee. Tho I handled him as gently as I knew how, he squealed with pain and made a bee-line for his haven of refuge, my mother’s lap. We bandaged up the leg as best we could; but it was of no use, and after four days of suffering he died. During his illness the conduct of Judge was almost human. The evening of the accident he discovered that, for some reason he could not comprehend, Doctor was absorbing the attention of the family; he protested violently, flew on my mother’s lap half a dozen times, only to be driven off, and finally, in a fit of rage and jealousy, he retreated under the sofa and sulked.
The next morning, however, he discovered that there was something really wrong with his companion, and his anxiety knew no bounds. Our aim was to keep Doctor as quiet as possible, but Judge seemed to believe in that treatment that some well-meaning people deem so efficacious—he wanted to do something “to take up the patient’s mind”; he tried to lure the poor Doctor into games of hide-and-seek and excursions to the window-sill. When feeding-time came he absolutely refused to eat until Doctor had been fed, which was an entirely new development, as in the past they had both been greedy over their meals. When Doctor finally succumbed, Judge was frantic; his grief and loneliness were most pathetic; he would run about the room for hours, peering behind pieces of furniture and under sofas and chairs and continually keeping up that whirring chirp with which they used to call each other.
He could not seem to get it out of his head that the Doctor was hiding from him, and his search was heart-rending. He refused all food, tho I tempted him with every dainty I could think of—live mice, fresh meat, a small bird and a nest full of baby mice failed to attract him, and he grew emaciated with surprising rapidity. He would look at the food, then start off on his fruitless search, whirring piteously the while. After hunting under all the chairs and sofas he would go out into the middle of the room, stretch out his little neck and whir, so pleadingly, so caressingly, with exactly the same note that they used when rubbing their bills together on the window-sill that I have seen grown-up members of my family furtively wiping their eyes.
He grew very weak, and only seemed contented on my mother’s lap. One evening he was lying cuddled up under her hand, apparently asleep.
“Poor Judge,” I said, “he will never get over the loss of Doctor.” The familiar name aroused the little fellow; he staggered to his feet, looked about with great round eyes, which were already glazing in death, summoned all his strength and gave one last whirring call and fell back dead.
Pets die, and our most intimate human friends covertly sneer at our grief. For our own part we generally resolve never to keep another pet. But it was a long time before our family forgot our little prairie-owls; it is some comfort for me to feel, that being taken so young and never having known freedom they were as happy with me as they could have been, exposed to the dangers and privations of their wild life. They certainly gave me a warmer sympathy with the whole animal kingdom.
The Independent Vol. 50, 1898
The reader will excuse Mrs Daffodil from commentary. She has something in her eye.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.