The book has been on the back-burner for a couple of days. We’ve been a little busy, but most of all the weather has just been miserable. The temperature has been below zero (centigrade), and the water has frozen in the pipes outside. This may not sound all that impressive to those of you from Northern climes, but bear in mind that we cheerfully build our houses as if we lived in Borneo. We tell ourselves that winter doesn’t last very long, dress warmly and sit huddled around heaters and fires. Our own house has inch wide gaps under the doors, and only about half the windows close properly. It’s very hard to type when you can’t move your fingers.
On top of that, we were visited last night by one of our local Spotted Eagle Owls, which makes for a nice distraction. It always surprises me that something that large and fierce looking manages to survive almost undetected in the suburbs of Joburg, but every now and then, usually in the evening when trying (in vain) to burn off a last bit of energy from the kids, we will look up and see them, usually a pair of them perched comfortably close to each other. They don’t seem fazed by us at all; one of them once spent the evening perched just a few metres from us, not even leaving when we turned a torch on him.
But then they disappear again, usually for months. I think what they are doing must be some sort of territorial display, because they seem to perch in the most prominent places possible, no matter how awkward it must be. It always makes me smile to see these huge, noble looking birds clinging desperately to the top of a spindly looking pine tree, or even a lightning conductor. We get Barn Owls too, but I’ve never seen one here, just heard them shrieking as they pass overhead.
The thing is, it’s not enough to be occasional hosts- we really want them to move in. My wife got me an owl box for my birthday, and I risked life and limb getting it high enough up a tree to serve its purpose. And now we wait. Apparently this can sometimes take years.
We’ve tried to make the garden as wild as possible, planting mostly indigenous plants and never using any chemicals (mostly out of laziness- I will do a plant the courtesy of putting it in the ground, but after that it’s on its own. We hardly even water). We have a growing population of lizards, geckos and frogs, and more and more birds are coming in as the garden grows. Over time, I hope to bring in some chameleons. A hedgehog or two would be nice. There is even a realistic chance we could end up with bushbabies- there is a healthy population of them living at my son’s school, which is just around the corner.
What we really need though, is something big and carnivorous to round it off. At the moment it’s like one of those game reserves that don’t have any predators bigger than a jackal: nice, but missing something. We were, bizarrely for a Jo’burg suburb, visited by a metre long leguaan (monitor lizard), but he moved on after having been howled at by our bloodhound for a whole day.
I’ve never seen any sign of snakes, but you never know. Our neighbour had a whole family of Red-lipped Herald snakes, but the only reason we know this is because, in true South African style, he hacked them up with a spade and left them on a rubble pile on the pavement. So our only hope is the owls.
You do, however, have to be careful what you wish for. When I was in ‘varsity we had a swallow nesting in our digs that was positively suicidal in defence of its babies. It would swoop down on us over and over again, sometimes actually raking us on the tops of our heads with its puny little claws. Spotted Eagle Owls don’t have puny little claws. They have talons. Attached to a bird the same size as my daughter. And you can’t hear them coming.
Growing up, my parents had a book called “A Delight of Owls” by Peter Steyn. One of the things I remember about it is that the author only had one eye. Guess what happened to the other one. Apparently Mr Steyn has a rather vague idea as to what “delight” means.
If our wish comes true, and an owl moves in, we might just have to seal off the bottom of our garden and treat it like a wilderness area. We would still let the kids outside, of course- nothing is better for kids than fresh, clean air, and having a healthy population of huge predatory birds and semi-venomous snakes competing for the space would teach them self-reliance and work wonders for their reaction times. We can give the gardener a crash helmet and danger pay, and wait until the end of the breeding season before we venture outside. It would all be worth it for the pleasure of knowing they were there.