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January 17, 2019

Love between owls brews in the African bush

Barn Owl.
Barn Owl.

A friend of mine was building a house somewhere in the countryside. He lives in Nairobi but he often drives to his rural home to supervise the farmhouse. At some point, it became too expensive for him to continue. He gave it a pause when it was halfway up.

He wanted to give himself sometime to save again for a year or so to continue. Nevertheless, he could not keep away from the site of the building. He kept dashing to his rural home from time to time to check on the house.

Not because there was anything that could be stolen from the semi-completed house, but just to look at it and do a mental calculation for the umpteenth time, of how much he would need to complete the house.

At times he would sit on the balcony of the finished part of the house and marvel at his success. It was when on such a visit that he noticed a rough looking nest at a dark corner of the house. Although he loves nature, he was not conversant with names or habits of birds or animals.

He could not tell which bird was intending to make a home in his house. He took a picture of the nest and sent it to me to identify. It was a rough structure of a barn owl nest.

Barn owls, as the name suggests, are quite common because they are normally found within settlements, abandoned barns, old water wells or unfinished houses. Therefore, anywhere there are settlements and not much movements and noise, barn owls will be present.

They are a ghost like little birds of prey that have been subject to powerful superstitions in most tribes, and especially in African folklores. Their faces resemble the symbol of a heart.

Because in all owls, big and small, their flight is almost soundless, it reinforces the belief that owls are ghosts that just appear from nowhere and land in your homestead. They make a chirping sound or a growl like a mourning old man, which is quite unnerving for most.

It was against this background that my friend insisted that he was going to destroy the nest next time he went to the house so that the bird does not return to the same nest during the next breeding season. For now, with a firm advice from me, he had to let the bird breed.

He could already see two eggs in the nest but he had no idea how long it would take for the barn owlets to come out alive. He hoped it was going to be before he regained his financial muscle to continue the building.

Just before he left the nest, the ghost hovered in and dropped down at her corner completely noiseless and ignoring his presence. It was mesmerising to watch such natural beauty and mystery, just few metres away.

The bird took a glance at my friend, settled on her nest and sat comfortably to incubate her future little ones. He sat there for a long time looking at what most people would rather kill if seen close to their houses, and vowed to let the owl make all the babies she wants and live in the house.

My friend’s next visit to his unfinished house was primarily to see how the owl was doing. It was after about two months. When he got to the site, he headed straight to where the nest was. To his amazement, the babies had come! There were two of them.

He was overjoyed to see the end result of a dutiful and hard working mother barn owl. He sat close to the nest with his phone camera at the ready. He had to wait for the mother to come home. Congratulations were in order to her. He did not have to wait long.

The mother swooshed down to the little birds, carrying a rat in its claws. But something wasn't right with the mother. She looked much bigger than the one she had seen before. Her face was also different.

Instead of the heart shape, she had a round face with the eyes positioned way up the face, and a black ring surrounded the eyes like she was wearing glasses.

When the owl blinked, he thought he saw a pink eyelid. When he sent me a picture of it, I identified the new mother to be the largest of the owl family, the verreaux eagle owl. Not a similar species, lives in completely different environment, but it was there, looking after the babies of a barn owl.

We concluded that probably some local people had killed the mother barn owl on her hunting trips, and the bigger owl had heard the cries of the hungry baby barn owls and had come to help.

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