THE CARING OWL: BORN TO BE FREE


The true story of a rehabilitated Spotted Eagle Owl called Uiltjie, who has made it his mission in life to take care of injured and orphaned birds.

Written by Chris Pretorius

Uiltjie (diminutive for “owl” in Afrikaans), an African Spotted Eagle Owl, showed up on our farm on a mild Autumn evening in April 2007. I know he actually deserves a more exotic name, but that’s what I called him and that’s what he answers to, so I’m afraid we’re stuck with it.

The owl and the little girl

The majestic owl, with its intense, golden eyes and magnificent ear tufts, was perched on a powerline pole just outside our house. At first, we were very careful not to scare our majestic visitor away and just took peeks through the window from behind the curtains, trying our best not to let him see us.

The second evening he returned – and we were ecstatic about our new owl. Life, however, had to go on and, although we were afraid that we might scare him away, we eventually had to go outside and continue with our normal evening chores.

Much to our surprise, the owl actually began following us, especially my youngest daughter when she went outside to check on the donkeys and horses. We soon realised that this owl was not entirely wild, and was probably hungry and unable to care for himself.

On the third evening, I was returning home from a business trip, with still about 150km to go, when my daughter phoned. She was so excited that she could barely speak: “Daddy, daddy! Mum gave me a piece of raw meat and said that I must go and put it on the pole outside to see if the owl would come and eat it, and then when I went outside with the meat, he came and sat on my arm and grabbed the piece of meat and gobbled it all up!”

Deep in my heart I envied her, almost feeling jealous that she was so privileged to have had such an incredible experience. The remaining 150km felt like 1500km to me as I could barely wait to get home, hoping that the owl would still be there and that, maybe, he’d take some food from me too. Unfortunately for me, he took off into the night after he’d finished the meat my daughter had given him and I had to be content with waiting until the next evening, hoping that he would return.

The owl who thought himself human

The next evening we all waited eagerly for the owl to show up; Murphy’s Law – he did not return that night or the next. But, the night after that, he showed up and sat hooting mournfully on one of the telephone poles. My daughter took a piece of raw meat, chicken this time, and headed outside to entice him to sit on her outstretched arm again, but no such luck.

After about half an hour of trying to get him to come and take the piece of chicken, we gave up and I told her to place it on one of the fence poles. It wasn’t very long before he flew down and very cautiously approached the piece of chicken, eventually grabbing hold of it in his huge talons and then gracefully soaring away with it in the dark to go and eat it where nobody could see him.

The owl now returned regularly every evening, timid at first, but getting more and more at ease with our presence as the days went by. It became clear to me that he had no idea what his natural food was and that he was not capable of hunting for himself as he’d never been taught to do so. Though he was scared of us at first, it soon became evident that he was, unfortunately, imprinted on people and did not think of himself as an owl, but as a human being. Perhaps he’d been kept as a pet (something which is both illegal and unkind).

His timidity in the beginning could probably be explained by a bad experience with humans after he’d escaped or was set free. Not knowing how to hunt for himself, his hunger must have driven him to populated areas in search of food. Unfortunately, a lot of people here in South Africa still believe that owls are a bad omen and will scare them away, throwing stones and sticks at them, even sometimes killing them if they come too close to their homes, especially when they begin hooting.

How to teach an owl to hunt

Uiltjie, as we’d started calling him, was now coming in regularly every night to beg for food. He had no idea that we were actually trying to get some sleep at night and he sometimes showed up at ridiculous hours, hooting on the stoep in front of my bedroom. I always got up, even though I hated it, and fed him, because I was afraid that he might go away in search of food somewhere else, never to return again if I did not feed him.

Once I knew that Uiltjie had claimed and accepted our farm as his territory, the task of properly rehabilitating him began. Owls can’t just live on raw meat – they need things like fur and feathers for healthy digestive function and nutrients. So, I first had to teach him what his natural food (mice, rats and birds) was, and then how to hunt for it.

The first was not too difficult because Uiltjie would eat almost anything that I presented him with. The latter, however, was not so easy, seeing as my wife and children would never allow me to feed him live mice and rats. I began picking up dead birds killed on the road (road kill) and took away dead mice from our cats.

At first, I tossed the mice and birds to him and then later on, as he got used to eating them, I tied them to my fishing rod and dragged them over the lawn so that he could learn to catch them. I’m not a trained rehabilitator or falconer and I guess most people would probably have laughed at my crude, yet effective methods.

To be quite honest, I think even Uiltjie must have thought that I was mad, trying to trawl for owls, with a mouse for bait, on the lawn! It was, however, not long before he couldn't resist pouncing on this moving, bobbing mouse and he plummeted down from the tree and caught it with his big sharp talons. A couple of millions of years’ instinct suddenly kicked in and he “killed” the already dead mouse with a twist of the neck, towering with spread wings over his prey.

He had chosen me as his mate

One evening a few weeks later, I heard him hooting outside on the stoep in front of my bedroom. This time he didn’t come begging for food, but had a huge rat dangling from his beak. When I approached him, he lay the rat down on the pillar and looked at me with almost a “smirk” on his face. The breeding season for spotted eagle owls had begun and this was his offering to me. He had chosen me as his “mate”, probably for life; to be quite honest, at that stage I accepted his offering with mixed feelings.

Yes, I was overwhelmed with joy and pride that he’d accepted me and that he could now hunt well enough to share his prey with me. But I also knew that this meant that Uiltjie was imprinted on me and would probably never have a normal “owl life”; as a result, he probably would never accept a female owl as his mate and never have the joy of raising his own little owlets in a natural way.

Most people won’t understand it, but a magnificent bird like Uiltjie was never meant to be a “pet” but to hunt freely in the wild, mate with a female owl, have chicks, hunt to feed them and even die fighting to raise and protect his “real owl” family. He might not live as long as when in captivity, but that is what owls are born to do and what they have done for a couple of million years, most probably some of the most proficient hunters ever to roam the earth.

That night there on the stoep I silently took an oath that I would make it my life’s mission to try and find a suitable female for him, though I knew that my mission was most probably doomed to fail even before I began.

Family guy

Uiltjie, however, had plans of his own. He didn’t only accept me as his partner but also my wife and children. It became a regular sight to see him strutting into the house with a mouse or a rat dangling from his beak, looking for the nearest “victim” to coax into accepting his offering.

He’d made himself part of our family and would show up regularly at dusk and dawn to beg for his pudding (steak). Sometimes he’d bring a mouse or rat and exchange it for the steak, as if to just show us that he could actually take care of himself. (I always accepted the rodent, but normally put it back on his perch when he wasn’t looking and then he’d come and steal it back later on.)

If we went for a walk outside at night, it normally wasn’t long before Uiltjies showed up. He’d follow us, flying from fence pole to fence pole and tree top to tree top, hooting and swooping down to the ground sometimes, sitting there waiting for us to catch up with him. At first he wasn’t too happy with the dogs and cats that accompanied us on our walks, but he grew to tolerate them, as long as they didn’t get too close to him.

Uiltjie crawled towards me

And then one day Uiltjie disappeared. It had happened on rare occasions that he skipped coming in for his piece of breakfast steak if he’d had a very successful night, but he never missed coming in for his steak at dusk before he went hunting. We searched the farm and adjacent areas but Uiltjie was nowhere to be found.

We had to accept that he’d either moved on to greener pastures or, worse, had met with an accident and been killed and that we would never see him again. For seven days we kept on searching, calling, hooting and praying… but Uiltjie was gone.

On the eighth day, I stopped at the garden gate on my way to work. Just as I was getting out of my truck to open the gate, I saw Uiltjie crawling towards me. He collapsed before I could reach him and lost consciousness. I picked him up and rushed to the house to examine him, but could find no outward signs of injury. However, he was clearly seriously injured as his right leg was dangling uselessly and I could see that he was in a lot of pain.

We’ll never know how he sustained his injuries or how he managed to get back to the farm in the condition that he was in, but he did. We suspect he was injured the first night and then it took him seven days to crawl back to the farm, maybe covering a short distance every night until he managed to reach the garden gate where I found him. He was exhausted and starved, but I didn’t want to feed him in case the vet had to sedate him.

A death sentence for Uiltjie?

We rushed him to the local vet who examined him thoroughly. Though the leg wasn’t broken, all the tendons and ligaments were very badly damaged. Worse still, x-rays revealed hairline compression fractures in his spinal cord. The vet explained that, due to the extent of his injuries, he’d never be able to live a normal life again and that the humane thing to do would be to euthanise him.

Now imagine just for one moment that a doctor tells you that your son’s leg is useless and that his spinal cord is damaged to such an extent that he will never be able to live a normal life and that you must rather end his miserable life. Well, that is how we felt about Uiltjie – he was like a child to us.

The death sentence was pronounced upon Uiltjie… but we refused to accept it. We told the vet that we were going to try our best to pull him through and rather let nature take its own course. If he was supposed to die, it would be in a natural way and with some dignity at home with people that loved him. He told us that the best that we could do for him, if that was our decision, was to keep him as quiet and warm as possible and to feed him as much healthy food as we could. Maybe, just maybe, he would live, but the chance of him flying and hunting again was basically less than zero.

The fight of his life

The first few days Uiltjie fought for his life. The one “fortunate” thing was that he couldn’t really move, so it was fairly easy to keep him inside the house. As he was used to coming into my workroom/study, I kept him there. I arranged a couple of pillows in such a way that his injured leg was comfortable, and he was quite content with being pampered in this way.

Because of his spinal injury he had difficulty in eating, so I had to cut his food into tiny pieces and hand-feed him every couple of hours. Then, another problem arose: because of the extent of his injuries he had great difficulty in relieving himself and so he became constipated. Now this is something that rarely happens to an owl and nobody seemed to know what to do.

Eventually, out of desperation, we put him into a bowl of lukewarm water and after holding him partially submerged for about half an hour, his muscles seemed to begin to relax and then, much to our joy, he was able to relieve himself in the bowl of water. (Never in my life would I have imagined myself telling someone that I’d find joy in an owl relieving himself – but here I am doing just that!)

A miraculous recovery

During those first few days I sometimes wondered if we shouldn’t have rather listened to the vet and relieved Uiltjie from his misery. At times I could see pain in his eyes, his whole body quivering when he tried to move into a more comfortable position, making almost baby-like sounds when he saw me to tell me that he was in pain. I could actually empathise with him, because a couple of years ago I’d injured my back severely in a car accident, so I knew what he was going through.

But Uiltjie was a fighter. After seven long, hard days, in which he slept in our bed and was fed every two hours, day and night, he lifted his head and looked around. It took another five weeks, during which time he was totally dependent on us, but, slowly but surely, he healed.

Five months later, Uiltjie was able to walk again, though painfully and with a limp, and even managed to fly short distances. In all this time, he was content to stay inside, but I could now see that he was beginning to get restless and wanted to go outside.

After much consideration, one Saturday morning I granted him his wish. I opened the window and allowed him to discover his freedom once again.

Fast forward six months

Uiltjie almost immediately noticed the open window and went out, looking as if he’d never been injured and confined to my workroom and stoep for almost six months. He sat on the stoep for almost half an hour and then flew straight to the nest box that I’d put up for him in a wild fig tree in the garden when he first showed up on the farm. And there he sat, almost the whole day, clucking like a happy hen with chicks.

Just before dusk he flew down to the dam and sat on the ground for a long time, enjoying his freedom. When darkness fell, he headed back to his nest in the fig tree and sat there hooting, as if to tell us and all the owls that he was back. He didn’t return to the house that evening but I was not worried as I knew he’d be safe in his nest box and would come begging for food as soon as he got hungry.

The next morning, at about half past four, I was woken by the sound of his hooting in my workroom. I quickly jumped out of bed and found him sitting in his favourite corner, hooting to tell me that he was hungry. A mouse that was taken away from the cats and 40 grams of steak later, Uiltjie went to sleep, a free owl again. He was now sleeping in the house because he wanted to be there, not because he had to.

Rehab take two

The task of rehabilitating Uiltjie now began again for the second time. This time he knew what his natural food was but had to learn how to fly properly again and how to use his right leg and talon, which was still clearly hurting.

An owl can easily cope in the wild with a couple of injuries, even not being able to fly or being blind in one eye, but if he has lost the use of even one leg, like Uiltjie had, he is almost useless.

But Uiltjie wasn’t prepared to give up. He actually turned left-handed (or would that be left-legged?) after a while and, a few days later, showed up with a rat that he’d somehow managed to catch with his left leg. Because his right leg was still basically useless, he was unable to hold his prey between his claws and tear it into smaller pieces and, because of his back injury, he still had trouble in swallowing large pieces of food. So he’d brought the rat home so that I could cut it into smaller pieces for him.

Time went by and Uiltjie improved drastically. I had to support him with food for the first couple of weeks and kept him inside whenever there were strong winds blowing, as his flying ability was not yet up to standard. (Spotted Eagle Owls at their best don’t like strong winds and normally go and hunt in sheltered areas or wait the storm out by taking shelter behind rocks or bushes on the ground when there is a strong wind blowing.)

We were overwhelmed with Uiltjie’s remarkable recovery. The owl that had been sentenced to death managed to defy everyone who said that he would never be able to fly and hunt again. Yes, the process was slow and painful, but today I thank God that we decided, despite everyone’s advice, to give him a chance to prove them wrong. Uiltjie was alive, free to come and go as he pleased and he could fend for himself and enjoyed doing so.

Uiltjie finds a remarkable purpose in life

In the meantime, Uiltjie had decided that he must somehow repay us for what we’d done for him. He took it upon his shoulders to foster injured and orphaned birds. He even adopted another adult male Spotted Eagle Owl that was severely injured, feeding him faithfully for almost a year.

This is quite remarkable as male owls tend to be very territorial and aggressive towards other male owls, and will even kill them. Uiltjie, however, cared for the owl, which we’d named Pathetic; every night he brought him a couple of rodents and, when food was difficult to come by, he would even take some of the steak that I gave him and feed that to the poor injured owl. Sadly, Pathetic passed away a year later – but that didn’t deter Uiltjie from his work.

Since his recovery, Uiltjie has adopted and successfully raised 34 Spotted Eagle Owlet orphans and even took it upon his shoulders to take them on hunting trips, once they were ready to fledge, teaching them how to hunt for their natural food and how to survive in the wild. But, like all Spotted Eagle Owls do, once he’d taught them how to fend for themselves, he chased them out of his territory to make way for the next batch of orphans.

In this way, he made it possible to rehabilitate the orphaned owlets in a natural way, increasing their chances of surviving in the wild and preventing them from imprinting onto human beings, which normally tends to be a major problem when having to hand-rear orphaned owlets.

But it wasn’t only birds of the same species that Uiltjie took care of. He’s been instrumental in the rehabilitation of several other owls, including a red data-listed Grass Owl, a Marsh Owl, a Giant Eagle Owl and a Barn Owl (which is now nesting on my stoep). This Barn Owl has, since her release, successfully raised 23 owlets. Uiltjie even adopted our old cat and brought her rodents as well. He actually tried to feed anything that I brought into my Owl Room.

Many owls make light work

A couple of years ago, Uiltjie’s task was made a little bit easier when he adopted a blind Spotted Eagle Owl that had been rescued from a sangoma. At the same time, I received two orphaned owlets that I put in the same nest box as the blind owl (which we’d named Tokkelosh), in the hope that their presence would calm him and help him to orientate himself better.

Much to my surprise this badly abused blind owl immediately adopted the owlets and, although Tokkelosh was male, he took over the role of a female and began feeding the owlets with food that Uiltjie brought him or that I provided him with.

This made life for me easier as well because now the owlets remained in the nest with Tokkelosh while Uiltjie went outside to hunt for food. Amazingly, once Tokkelosh got used to his surroundings, he even began flying around in the room, making use of something similar to echo location to find the young owlets and feed them. Together, he and Uiltjie reared 12 orphaned owlets. His total dedication towards the orphaned owlets was almost even more remarkable than the story of Uiltjie.

He didn’t even know where his food came from, yet unconditionally adopted the owlets and fed them first, and only once they were all fed would he begin eating himself, if there was any food left. That is what I call “Blind Love”.

Uiltjie’s disappearance

And then, in March 2014, Uiltjie disappeared. We looked everywhere for him, but there was no sign of him. A week went by, then two and then three, but Uiltjie didn’t come back. We didn’t know whether he’d just left us or whether he was dead. I was devastated as Uiltjie had become like a child to me and not knowing what had happened to him made it even worse. The weeks became months, but Uiltjie didn’t return.

Until one evening, about a year and three months after he’d disappeared, I heard a familiar hoot. At first, I thought I was imagining it, but then I heard it again. I rushed outside and, much to my absolute joy, there was our Uiltjie sitting on top of his old nest box in the big wild fig tree in the garden as if he’d never been gone. I quickly ran inside and came out with some meat.

He swooped down, grabbed it from my hand and disappeared into the darkness to go and eat it. That whole night I could hear his familiar hooting all over the garden, claiming his territory back. It was wonderful.

Owl always love you

The next morning, I got up very early to go and see if he was still around. I found him in the corner of the garden, sitting beside another owl. I immediately recognised his new friend – it was a female which had had a broken leg and which we’d released a couple of days before Uiltjie disappeared. He must have followed her when she left and eventually persuaded her to come back to the farm with him.

I put up a new nest box for them and the female, who I named Woody, moved right in. Although we thought she was going to breed, the breeding season passed without her laying any eggs.

Uiltjie and Woody happily remained in our garden, and last year, August 2016, Woody finally laid two perfect white eggs. To our delight, both hatched. I introduced an orphaned chick and, amazingly, they adopted him too, raising all three together, making this Uiltjie’s 35th orphan which he’d successfully adopted.

This year, Woody has moved into another nest box closer to the Owl Room – and, what’s more, she’s laid another two eggs, which I hope will have hatched by the time that this article goes to print. It took me almost eight years to get Uiltjie to take a female owl as a mate, but believe me, it was worth all the effort. Uiltjie is now living life as a real free owl, raising his own babies.

The caring owl

I don’t know how long Uiltjie will be around, because, according to my calculations, he must now be just over 11 years old. Owls can live up to 20 years in captivity, but this is way beyond the average lifespan of owls living in the wild.

Since that day in 2007 when he showed up on the farm for the first time, Uiltjie has become known as The Caring Owl and has become an international celebrity. He crept into and touched the hearts of thousands of people all around the world, showing them that animals are caring sentient beings and that humans and animals can work and live together to make earth a better place for all.

Find out more

Aside from Uiltjie, the Pretorius family also includes cats, dogs, horses, donkeys, pigs, ducks and chickens, lizards, and other birds, and have made it their mission in life to help sick, injured and abandoned animals. Subscribe to The Caring Owl YouTube channel for videos of Uiltjie and his friends, visit www.thecaringowl.co.za and follow on Facebook @thecaringowl.

Watch Uiltjie do his best to get some hungry babies to eat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHMcXq3B0nE

Important note

Owls are wild animals and should never be kept as pets. The ultimate goal of sanctuaries like this is to rehabilitate and release these animals back into the wild; Uiltjie and Woody are free to come and go as they please. Some of the other wild birds and animals who are permanent residents on the farm could not be released for their own safety, but they are still not pets.

If you know of someone selling wild animals, or see people hawking animals alongside the road, please do not buy them as this encourages the illegal and cruel wildlife trade. Instead, contact your local SPCA immediately.