A nondescript wooden box filled with odds and ends sat in a corner of the work shed. “Perfect,” I said to myself. I dumped the contents on a shelf and returned home with it triumphantly. Rom nodded his head in approval as I handed the empty box to him.
“I’ll saw a hole at this end and nail the lid shut,” he said, as he dusted it with a rag.
I peeked into the plastic bucket to check on the three homeless owlet chicks. A dead Palmyra tree that had been their home had crashed to the ground in a freak thunderstorm that April morning.
Once Rom completed the box makeover, I stuffed it with debris from the old nest and placed the chicks inside. I climbed up the neem tree at whose base the Palmyra tree lay and strapped the box to a branch.
I ran up and down the stairs throughout the day, peering through windows to see if the parent spotted owlets returned. They were nowhere in sight. I began to doubt if this enterprise of providing alternate housing for the chicks would be successful. Maybe the nest box should have been strapped upside down, so the hole was on top. Maybe the parents would be spooked, since the nest was even closer to the house than the tree had been. Maybe I ought to have fed the chicks before putting them in the box. It was too late to do anything. Instead, I worried.
It was evening when I finally spied the diminutive parents preening themselves on a branch a foot away from the nest box. I ran downstairs with the happy tidings. But relief was short-lived.
The next morning, the three chicks lay dead below the tree. The box had no baby gate. Had I strapped it upside down, the chicks would not have fallen off. I felt guilty and stupid.
Having lost one brood, the owlets were likely to nest again. But there were no other old trees with ready-made cavities nearby. So I turned the box upside down, and strapped it to the same spot.
The owlets adopted the box within days. Sometimes, I’d look out the window and be taken aback by a pair of large yellow eyes glaring at me. A couple of weeks later, I heard one of the parents call from the nearby banyan tree, and a chorus of chirps responded from the nest box. “There are chicks, there are chicks,” I sang happily, guilt forgotten.
I looked in bird books to estimate the date of fledging. But in mid-May, a loud altercation erupted between the owlets and a pair of magpie-robins. The feisty intruders dive-bombed and harassed an owlet, while the chicks screamed from inside the box. The adult owlet fled. Later, I saw the magpie-robins dart in and out of the nest box. What had happened to the owlet babies? Magpie-robins aren’t known to kill chicks, but the absolute silence from the nest box made my stomach feel hollow with dread.
I climbed the tree and peeked inside the box. It was empty: no eggs, eggshells, or chicks, dead or alive. Did I imagine the chicks calling? The only reasonable explanation I can offer is: The chirps were not made by chicks, but by mama owlet who may have been readying the box to lay her eggs.
Ownership of the box hasn’t been resolved at the time of writing. At night, the owlets announce their possession of it, and at daybreak, the magpie-robins occupy it and sing melodiously in victory.
Meanwhile, I’m still looking for another box to put the stuff I emptied on the shelf. I don’t know the antecedents of the dusty old box. Until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t noticed its existence, and now it is at the centre of a property dispute between two species.