a few days ago, just as the sky began to get light, we were awakened by a crash. my first thought was that a kereru/native woodpigeon had flown into one of the windows of the next room. if it were a bird, it would almost certainly be injured, given the force with which it had hit the glass (we felt the impact as well as heard it). so i padded downstairs to see whether anyone was lying stunned (or worse) on the ground. in the grey early light, it was difficult to see, but eventually i did make out an unusual shape sprawled among the pale green leaves of the juicy succulent that is slowly claiming the ground outside our guest-room window. when i folded the wings back in and turned the bird over, this is what i found.
this is a ruru or morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae), new zealand’s only remaining owl (the laughing owl, along with about half of our other native bird species, became extinct between human colonization of the islands and the end of the 20th century). i had seen them before (and we hear them reasonably often–they make over 20 different vocalisations) but never in the wild, and never this close. his mottled rust-brown and cream feathers were smooth and silky on the wings, incredibly soft on the belly, and almost spiderweb-fine down the legs, to the surprisingly yellow feet. when i picked him up, his head lolled and his eyes were closed, but one foot grasped a fallen cabbage tree leaf, he was breathing, and to my great relief, the remaining tension in his neck showed that it wasn’t broken.
i gathered him in to hold in one hand, pinning the wings to the body. i’ve studied wild birds in the past but the usual hold, with the head supported between first and second fingers, would clearly not work for a bird longer than my forearm. even a small owl has wicked talons and an effective beak, so i hoped i wouldn’t have to explain a slashed wrist to our local emergency facilities (although, good story!). he seemed far from a vicious panic attack, though, so i took my chances. i carried him up to our small deck and sat to examine him more closely. as we walked through the door from the house back outside, his wide yellow eyes popped open and looked around, and he turned his head a bit to get a better look at his surroundings—and me.
owl eyes are unlike most other birds’ eyes; they are proportionally very large, forward-facing and set in flat facial discs and supported by the bony rings common to all raptors. up close, their size and vivid color make for an intense, piercing stare; the bright yellow-orange irises and extraordinary large black pupils of this morepork seemed to convey a much higher awareness than the eyes of most smaller birds. this is probably why owls have their reputation for wisdom across many cultures; in the traditional facial moko/tattoos of the maori, women wear a stylized ruru on their chins for wisdom. i was glad to see that the pupils, although remaining large, expanded and constricted together. the owl’s clear gaze continued to hold mine as i debated whether to test his ability to stand, or check him for injuries.
in the end, his improving head control (i only rotated him a little—for science) and the foot continuing to grasp the cabbage tree frond convinced me to let him try perching. i positioned him behind a bamboo gardening hoop on the deck and touched the perch to the top of his feet; he flailed a little and then grasped, crouching a little lopsidedly and continuing to peer around. while his coordination showed he was not yet fully recovered, nothing seemed obviously broken, although he did slowly tip forward until he hung bat-like from the underside of the perch. i re-collected him into a tea towel so i could isolate each limb and sat down to examine him more closely. i felt along his legs and feet; tension was good, i couldn’t feel any broken bones and he didn’t flinch at my prodding. his ribs, sternum and skull all seemed fine, so although his eyes had closed again, i thought he had a good chance of recovering after some peace and quiet.
i carried him inside with me (to the cats’ consternation—as indoor dwellers they don’t get to see birds on their side of the windows very often), procured a wooden beer crate and brought it back out to the deck with some fat sticks to make perches. i set the box with the open side facing out, positioned the sticks, and gently inserted the owl behind a one, planning to retry the perching prompt. he grasped one of the sticks with a foot, but fluttered his wings and made an awkward hop that brought him out of the box. once in the open, he looked at me, sprang into the air, and made a smooth, swooping, perfect flight over the deck rail, around the corner of the house, and off into the trees. so he was clearly… owl right!