Caroline Stoltenberg’s fingers swept across the keys of the accordion and her voice pitched the highs and lows of a masterful yodel. This amazing woman walked with a limp, the bulky brace on her leg a reminder of a battle with polio. Yet it could not keep her from sharing her gifts of music and art (and baking).
A vivid imagination and life experiences became the well from which Caroline withdrew many a story. She kept a portfolio of them, most never to be published. One day, she narrated a story to me about her brother and an owl. I never forgot it and rejoiced when years later she sent it to be printed in a local magazine. This is my abridged version.
Carl did not intend to bring home two baby birds.
In the 1930’s, farm boys liked to collect birds’ eggs as a hobby. One day Carl spotted a nest in the spindly branches way up in a tree. He climbed as high as he could but still could not see into the nest, so he stretched his hand over his head. When he reached in, his fingers touched feathers and felt tiny pecks. The baby birds screeched, and Carl felt terrible.
Because he’d touched the little birds, he thought their mother would abandon them. He carefully put them in his knapsack and took them home. They devoured canned tuna as if it was their regular diet. The smaller bird survived only a few days. The hearty one, which Carl named Boy, ate anything offered—and thrived.
Boy seemed different from the barn owls Carl knew. Like a Great Horned Owl, he had large, yellow eyes and long, sharp claws. From his perch in the opening at the peak of the barn, he watched over his yard and his people—and he swooped from there to land on Carl’s shoulder.
As soon as Carl stepped out of the house to go hunting with his .22 and called, ‘Come on, Boy!’ the owl got excited. Carl hiked into the orchard, sometimes with Boy riding the shoulder but more often walking and chirping happily at Carl’s heels. When Carl felled a bird, Boy ran or flew to retrieve it, then returned behind Carl before receiving his treat.
Two school buses passed Carl’s house. When Boy needed meat, Carl ran the mile from school to a butcher shop, bought the meat, and ran to catch the second bus when it stopped at the railroad tracks. Boy waited from his perch at the barn. If the first big yellow bus did not stop, he screeched, flew to the ground, and started walking down the driveway. He knew Carl would then be on the second bus, carrying meat for him. He squawked with anticipated joy. When Carl got off the bus, Boy was waiting for him. Carl stuck out a leg, and Boy walked up to rest on the familiar shoulder for a ride up the hill.
Boy started to disappear a few days at a time. One morning, before breakfast, Carl’s dad went out on his rounds of the ranch and came hurrying back with the announcement, “Boy is back and has his girlfriend with him.” Carl found them high on a rafter in the barn. Miss Whoo-zits had seen enough and flew out. Boy waited a few minutes looking at him, then he also left.
Carl never saw Boy again. He knew the owl had made a difficult decision—the right one.
Bird egg collecting is now illegal for citizen scientists, but real scientists can get permits. However, few do, in part because the process is so labor-intensive.
Carl didn’t know that birds have a poor sense smell, so the mother bird probably would not have known he’d touched her eggs.