Am Bratach No. 252
I knew I was in for trouble as soon as I set down the phone. A friend had called apologetically for help. Er, Andy, I think we have a problem, she said, including me in the sentence already, I noticed. I think there is something stuck down my chimney.
A starling, perhaps, or a pine marten, a stoat or maybe even a colony of bats, I wondered I have had to deal with all these creatures lurking in folks chimneys or behind walls and plasterboard but I was not quite expecting what I saw when I got there.
At least, I didnt see it at first. Quiet please, I am concentrating, I said my ear pressed against the John Lewis Indian Summer Wallpaper. I think it is quite big, I said, trying to sound knowledgeable. The owners didnt know how long it has been there they had been away for the weekend and had only first heard the frantic midnight scratching noises last night. With a powerful torch, and moving the coal scuttle, the bundles of crumpled newspapers and well seasoned logs, I climbed into the fire place and got my head as far up the chimney as I could. Soot started to fall. With the power of a million candles I was able to illuminate what looked like a foot a feathered foot that almost certainly belonged to a Tawny Owl. I know the talons of an owl are clinically sharp, designed to grab fast moving field voles or territorial blackbirds, and not let go. But there was nothing else I could do, so I made a grab for the leg. With limited mobility in the chimney, I was at full stretch and still only able to touch some soft down feathers. Naturally frantic with fear by now, the poor bird made a desperate effort and with much beating of wings ascended up into the blackness of the chimney. The scuttling noise travelled up the wall and then up the bedroom wall. More soot started to appear in the grate and all over my head and into my ears.
The house was designed that we could climb out on to the roof from the upstairs. But only I had enough grip on the soles of my ancient Goretex, Meindl trainers to be able to walk up the slate covered roof to the chimney pot and peer down. I was quite surprised to see a face stare up at me. The face of a tawny owl is stunning a pale tawny, with a tinge of chestnut. The large black eyes are surrounded by two pale semi-circular discs with a narrow dark edge. The bill is pale olive-yellow and looked very sharp. I was not sure what the owl was resting on but I could see there would be no purchase for it to be able to get underneath the opening of the chimney pot and out to freedom. I tried to grab it from above. With most of my body engulfed in the chimney and my legs protruding out at a weird angle I reached down and was frustratingly able only to stroke the top of its head before I heard it scuttle all the way down the chimney. We were back to where we were at the start.
Up and down we went, dragging soot all through the house and chasing the owl up the chimney and down again without me ever having enough reach to yank it out. After the fourth desperate attempt I decided it was now or never and forced my head and chest further into the blackness and grime of the enclosed space. This time I was able to get my fingers right around a leg. Unceremoniously I hauled the wildly thrashing bird into the living room, knocking the head off a china goose on the mantlepiece and spraying soot all over the Khazak handknotted carpet.
Surprisingly the owl looked none the worse for its ordeal, perhaps a bit dirtier and certainly a bit bad tempered. When we opened the front door it calmly hopped off my hand and took off. It was completely uninjured and its flight was magnificent, as it used slow wing movements to power its way up to the top of the tallest Norway spruce tree. To her credit the owner was not bothered about the mess and inconvenience but delighted to see the bird rescued. I wish everyone had the same priorities. I came back later with a nest box and we were able to fix it to the spruce tree. She tells me the owls still call every night.
Tawny owls stay with the same mate all their adult lives, so I can only guess at the explaining our bird had to do when he got back home that day.
It reminded me of a story of the birdwatcher who befriended an owl that lived near the bottom of his garden. Each evening he would stand in the bottom of the garden hooting like an owl and an owl would call back to him. For a year, the man and his feathered friend hooted back and forth. However, one day his wife was having a blether with her next door neighbour and let on that her husband was spending his nights ... calling out to owls. Thats odd, her neighbour replied. So does my John. Then it dawned on them!
Andy is a Highland Council senior countryside ranger, based at Lochinver.