Among the many and various strangers within my gates who have helped to enliven the days of my exile, Tommy was one towards whom I still feel a certain sense of obligation because he taught me for the first time what an owl is. For Tommy was an owl. From any dictionary you may ascertain that an owl is a nocturnal, carnivorous bird, of a short, stout form, with downy feathers and a large head; and if that does not satisfy you, there is no lack of books which will furnish fuller and more precise descriptions.
But descriptions cannot impart acquaintance. I had sought acquaintance and had gained some knowledge such as books cannot supply, not only of owls in general, but of that particular species of owls to which Tommy belonged, who, in the heraldry of ornithology, was Carine brahma, an Indian spotted owlet. This branch of the ancient family of owls has always been eccentric. It does not mope and to the moon complain. It flouts the moon and the sun and everyone who passes by, showing its round face at its door and even coming out, at odd times of the day, to stare and bob and play the clown. It does not cry "Tuwhoo, Tuwhoo," as the poets would have it, but laughs, jabbers, squeaks and chants clamorous duets with its spouse.
All this I knew. I had also gathered from his public appearances that a spotted owlet is happy in his domestic life and that he is fond of fat white ants, for, when their winged swarms were flying, I had seen him making short flights from his perch in a tree and catching them with his feet; and I believed that he fed in secret on mice and lizards. But all that did not amount to understanding an owl, as I discovered when Tommy became a member of our chummery.
Tommy was born in "the second city of the British Empire," to wit, Bombay, in the month of March, 1901. His birthplace was a hole in an old "Coral" tree. Domestic life in that hole was not conducted with regularity. Meals were at uncertain hours and uncertain also in their quantity and quality. The parents were hunters and were absent for long periods, and though there was incredible shouting and laughter when they returned, they came at such irregular times that we did not suspect that they were permanent residents and had a family. One night, however, Tommy, being precocious and, as we discovered afterwards, keen on seeing life, took advantage of parental absence to clamber to the entrance of the nursery and, losing his balance, toppled over into the garden. He kept cool, however, and tried to conceal himself, but Hurree the malee, watering the plants early in the morning, spied him lying with his face on the earth and brought him to us.
He seemed dead, but he was very much alive, as appeared when he was made to sit up and turned those wonderful eyes of his upon us. He was a droll little object at that time, nearly globular in form and covered with down, like a toy for children to play with. His head turned like a revolving lighthouse and flared those eyes upon you wherever you went, great luminous orbs, black-centred and gold-ringed and full of silent wonder, or, I should rather say, surprise. This never left him. To the last everything that presented itself to his gaze, though he had seen it a hundred times, seemed to fill him with fresh surprise. Nothing ever became familiar. What an enviable cast of mind! It must make the brightness of childhood perennial.
There was some discussion as to how Tommy should be fed, and we finally decided that one should try to open the small hooked beak, whose point could just be detected protruding from a nest of fluff, while another held a piece of raw meat ready to pop in. It did not look an easy job, but we had scarcely set about it when Tommy himself solved the difficulty by plucking the meat out of our fingers and swallowing it. This early intimation that, however absent he might look, he was "all there" was never belied, and there was no further difficulty about the feeding of him. When he saw us coming he always fell into the same ridiculous attitude, with his face in the dust, but we just picked him up and stood him on his proper end and showed him the meat and his bashfulness vanished at once.
After sunset he would get lively and begin calling for his mother in a strange husky voice. At this time we would let him out in the garden, watching him closely, for, if he thought he was alone, he would sneak away slyly, then make a run for liberty, hobbling along at a good rate with the aid of his wings, though he never attempted to fly as yet. When detected and overtaken, he fell on his face as before. One memorable day he found a hole in a stone wall and, before we could stop him, he was in. The hole was too small to admit a hand, though not a rat or a snake, so the prospect was gloomy. Suddenly a happy inspiration came to me. That sad, husky cry with which he expressed his need of a mother was not difficult to mimic, and he might be cheated into thinking that a lost brother or sister was looking for him. I retired and made the attempt, and, hark! a faint echo came from the wall. At each repetition it became clearer, until the round face and great eyes appeared at the mouth of the hole. Then the round body tumbled out, and little Tommy was hobbling about, looking, with pathetic eagerness, for "the old familiar faces." When he discovered how he had been betrayed, his face went down and he suffered himself to be carried quietly to the canary's cage in which he was kept.
It seemed to be time now to begin Tommy's education, for I judged that, if he had been at home, he would ere then have been getting nightly lessons in the poacher's art. So I procured a small gecko, one of those grey house lizards, with pellets at the ends of their toes, which come down from the roof after the lamps are lit and gorge themselves on the foolish moths and plant bugs that come to the light. Securing it with a thin cord tied round its waist, I introduced it into Tommy's cage. He looked surprised, very much surprised. He raised himself to his full height. He gazed at it. He curtseyed. He gave a little jump and was standing with both feet on the lizard. A moment more and the lizard was gliding down his throat with my thin cord after it. Mr. Seton Thompson would have us believe that all young things are laboriously trained by their parents, just like human children, and if he was an eye-witness of all the scenes that he describes so vividly, it must be so with other young things. But he did not know Tommy, who is the bird of Minerva and evidently sprang into being, like his patron goddess, with all his armour on.
After a time, when he had exchanged his infant down for a suit of feathers, he was promoted to a large cage out in the garden, and his regular diet was a little raw meat or a mutton bone tied to one of his perches, but, by way of a treat, I would offer him, whenever I could get it, a locust, or large grasshopper. His way of accepting this was unique and pretty. He would look surprised, stare, curtsey once or twice, stare again and then, suddenly, noiselessly and as lightly as a fairy, flit across the cage and, without alighting, pluck the insect from my fingers with both his feet and return to his perch.
Why he bowed to his food and to everybody and everything that presented itself before him was a riddle that I never solved. A materialistic friend suggested that he was adjusting the focus of his wonderful eyes, and the action was certainly like that of an optician examining a lens; but I feel that there was something more ceremonial about it. This punctiliousness cost him his dinner once. I was curious to know what he would do with a mouse, so, having caught one alive, I slipped it quietly into his cage. He was more surprised than ever before, raised himself erect, bowed to the earth once, twice and three times, stared, bowed again and so on until, to his evident astonishment and chagrin, the mouse found an opening and was gone. The lesson was not lost. A few days later I got another mouse, to which he began to do obeisance as before, but very soon and suddenly, though as softly as falling snow, he plumped upon it with both feet and, spreading his wings on the ground, looked all round him with infinite satisfaction. The mouse squeaked, but he stopped that by cracking its skull quietly with his beak. Then he gathered himself up and flew to the perch with his prize.
One thing I noted about Tommy most emphatically. He never showed a sign of affection, or what is called attachment. He maintained a strictly bowing acquaintance with me. He was not afraid, but he would suffer no familiarity. He would come and eat, with due ceremony, out of my hand, but if I offered to touch him he was surprised and affronted and went off at once. When I moved to another house I found that I could not continue to keep him, so I sent him to the zoological garden, where I visited him sometimes, but he never vouchsafed a token of recognition. His heart was locked except to his own kin.
But since that time, when I have seen an owl, even a barn owl, or a great horned owl, swiftly cross the sky in the darkness of night, I have felt that I could accompany it, in imagination, on its secret quest. It will arrive silently, like the angel of death, in a tree overlooking a field in which a rat, whose hour has come, is furtively feeding, all alert and tremulous, but unaware of any impending danger. The rat will go on feeding, unconscious of the mocking curtsey and the baleful eyes that follow with mute attention its every motion, until the hand of the clock has moved to the point assigned by fate, and then it will feel eight sharp talons plunged into its flesh. I have seen the fierce dash of the sparrow hawk into a crowd of unsuspecting sparrows, I know the triumph of the falcon as it rises for the final, fatal swoop on the flying duck, and I have watched the kestrel, high in air, scanning the field for some rash mouse or lizard that has wandered too far from shelter. The owl is also a bird of prey, but its idea is different from all these.