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“Frogscript • Owls”
by Evette Kwok
A very long time ago, I formed an indissoluble bond with owls: from the moment I was born all my relatives said that I looked like one with my big round eyes. But behind this lies a story, and not a very flattering one at that — they say that when my mother was pregnant with me, she once ate some owl-meat, and it is for this reason they thought I turned out looking rather owlish.
Such stories are rather ridiculous, of course, but it is perhaps for this reason that I have a strong affinity with owls. I’ve liked them ever since I was small, and couldn’t bear to part with any story-book that had an owl in it. Later on, when I found out that they were symbols of wisdom and learning in many different cultures, this added to their intrigue for me and made me even more determined to become a lover and supporter of owls.
The first time I went for a job interview at Kadoorie Farm, I didn’t have the faintest idea about environmental education or ecological protection. As I recall, when the interview was over, the person in charge of animals told me to pay a visit to the lower area of the farm and to take a look at the animals get on display there. I was then to write something about how to design educational information and to email this back for appraisal.
I was delighted when I saw the large display area set aside for birds of prey divided into two section, one for diurnal birds and the other for nocturnal species. There I saw a large number of black-eared kites as well as three owls. This was the first time that I had ever seen an owl in the flesh: they stood there completely motionless with their wide-open, staring eyes which shone with a ferocious gleam that made you feel just how imposing they were. Perhaps the owls completely overawed me: by the time I got home, I couldn’t even begin to write any educational information, and my first attempt to find a job at Kadoorie Farm ended in failure. That didn’t discourage me, however, and I went on trying to get a job there. Eventually, with a bit of luck, they gave me a second chance and my second job interview was successful.
After I began work at Kadoorie Farm, I kept hoping that I would get to see an owl in the wild. I remember going on a night walk the Farm one night: every one who took part had to make as little noise as possible so that they would not scare the animals away — otherwise, our night would have been in vain. My goal on that night was to see an owl.
We were walking very quietly through the pitch-black forest when all of a sudden we heard something go woo. An expert from the animals section told us that this was the cry of a collared Scops owl. Boy, was I excited, knowing that the bird I wanted to see most of all was close by, and so I kept shining my torch up into the branches, trying as hard as I could to locate the bird so that I could say my hello’s to it. Unfortunately for me, that night all I did was hear an owl — I wasn’t destined to actually get to see a real owl!
Owls are birds of prey that hunt by night, and they rely on hunting for their food in order to survive. The structure of an owl’s feathers is something quite special: the comb-shaped feathers at the front of the main part of their wings are designed so as to eliminate any noise made during flight, and so the animals owls prey on, including frogs and mice, have trouble detecting their presence until it is too late — truly a case of being “beset by dangers on all sides”. It is for this reason, too, that we human beings have trouble sighting owls at night.
Like amphibians such as frogs, owls are deeply mysterious nocturnal creatures. Although you can hear their calls — performing as it were for the quiet of the night — it is almost impossible to find any concrete trace of them. But even the sounds they make to stake their claim on a piece of territory or to attract a mate are intriguing.
Sometimes I imagine myself turning into an owl and flying off every evening from my home to the feng shui woods behind where I live and to the Spirit Tree of She Shan Mountain — an ancient camphor tree more than three, perhaps even four, hundred years old — where I would sit and enjoy the tranquillity of nature and to make good use of my penetrating owl eyesight and exceptional powers of hearing to take in the various fascinating fine details of the forest, or to watch a whole family of boar going out in search of food, or to take in the song-like mating calls of the frogs, or to see the bats chase down mosquitos. But whenever I began to feel hungry myself, I would fly back to my home and cook my own dinner there.
Translated by Simon Patton