I was asking where the owls were. Even as the hippos snuffled outside my cabin, leopards roamed around the parking lot, and the moon waned then waxed, I never heard the hooting call of wild darkness. I listened and watched as the light drained from the sky in the Mara, as the polluted water lapped on the shores of Lake Naivasha, as the fire was lit at the GRL ranch an hour from Nairobi. Nothing. But back here in the heart of Nairobi, home comes Munir from a tennis game with his son – seven year old, just today! – with four baby barn owls. Their feet were tethered with twine, but at least they were alive, swept from a building site, parents long gone, delivered in a flimsy cardboard box on the back of a motorcycle to Nairobi’s raptor guy, Dr. Munir Virani of The Peregrine Fund.
I know barn owls from my escapades in another city that seems far away, New York. Around this time for the past few years, I have climbed upon a boat captained by Don Riepe,official guardian of Jamaica Bay, with NYC DEP biologist Chris Nadareski and a handful of dedicated volunteers, to find the barn owls in their boxes in that precious window of time in which they are big enough to ring with a leg band but small enough to not have fledged from their box. Sometimes, as we sneak up to the sites, through poison ivy and fields littered with gull nests, we catch an unsuspecting adult. Chris holds her delicately, even as she dips a fierce talon into his palm, gauzy delicate wings the color of dappled honey and snow extending out into the sunlight.
The four African cousins in the cardboard box are smaller. We can see the gradations like days of a calendar marked in down. The oldest is nearly fully feathered with its adult plumage, perhaps three weeks old, I’m estimating. Its dark eyes are alert and it sways its head back and forth in a hypnotic movement, on guard as we humans surround it. In New York, I have witnessed the siblings doing this motion in synch, hissing a strange reptilian sound in defense. But Number One.moves alone. Its three siblings aren’t nearly as strong or active. They fall one upon the other, each one more downy than the last.
We pick them up and unwind the string from their talons, opening their beaks to drop in water. I clutch the smallest and can feel the sharpness of its breastbone against my forefingers, a tiny thing nearly weightless. Closer inspection reveals a wound; something has punctured it in its throat in this already catastrophic day, left motherless and homeless, a refuge at the whim of a human world both brutal and caring. Munir applies antibiotic powder to the wound in hopes of keeping infection away. They refuse the raw meat we offer, and we don’t press them for now. Let them settle into the towel-lined wash basin and rest under a warm light.
Six hours later, we return from our dinner, our nyama choma cooked and seasoned and swept down with Tusker, and it is time for the owls’ midnight feeding. These are raptors, and they need their protein if they are to survive. They are still alive, and we lift them one by one to push the flesh down their gullets. Number One stands, extending its wings, but the other three take the food and then collapse again. They are young, only hints of the powerful night hunters they could become. Anything is possible. Tomorrow we will drop them at woman’s house who cares for orphans like these. There are no rehab centers in Kenya. Everything is unofficial.
I have washed my hands but their smell lingers with me. It is a smell of feathers and blood and raw meat and duffy down. Of desire and connection to something addictive and unnameable. Of fear, maybe, or perhaps hope. Could they smell the same? It is late again, the only time I seem to find to write, and I hope that come morning there will still be four feathered creatures blinking at us when it comes time for the next feeding. If winged visitors visited in my dreams in the time between then and now, I wouldn’t mind at all.