Sunday Times

THINGS THAT WENT BUMP IN THE NIGHT

- L S. © Car­los Amato Do you have a funny or quirky story about your trav­els? Send 600 words to trav­el­mag@sun­day­times.co.za and in­clude a re­cent photo of your­self for pub­li­ca­tion with the col­umn. Animals · Wildlife · Laos · South Africa · Africa · Google · Turkey · Bordeaux · Emmanuel Macron · Charlotte Gainsbourg

Those must be mice up in the at­tic, I said to my wife, calmly. Large mice, to be sure — by the sound of their stomp­ing, they must have weighed 2kg each. But this was the Dor­dogne, af­ter all — a nu­tri­tional won­der­land. These mice had been raised on wal­nuts and truf­fles and foie gras. It stood to rea­son that they were a bit curvy. We were stay­ing in a con­verted stone barn in a ham­let south of Sain­teFoy-la-Grande, the hol­i­day home of my Bri­tish cousin, who had warned us of the teem­ing nat­u­ral haz­ards of the Dor­dogne in high sum­mer. “Wasps!” he said. “Bees! Ants! Toads!” We nod­ded and chor­tled. We’re from South Africa, boet. We’ll eat your wasps on a bladdy crois­sant.

But on ar­rival, we had to ad­mit the French south­west is in­deed a bit hard­core on the bug front. And the toad front. And the mouse front.

Night af­ter night, our host fam­ily of lard-ar­sed mice danced on the ceil­ing all night. They gal­loped and squeaked and boo­gied un­til dawn. But we slept fine, on one con­di­tion: that they were mice and noth­ing else.

One morn­ing, my wife spot­ted four fierce am­ber eyes star­ing out at her from the gloom of a coal scut­tle on the ve­ran­dah. On closer in­spec­tion, she found they be­longed to two owl chicks — who had clearly been moved overnight from their nest in the at­tic by their par­ents. The chicks were each the size of a pi­geon — fluffy, flight­less and solemn.

To com­pli­cate mat­ters, a large, dead rat was sprawled in a tragic pose over the rim of the coal scut­tle. The par­ents must have left the rat as break­fast for the chicks, who didn’t look at all thrilled. You wouldn’t call them picky eaters if you had seen the rat in ques­tion.

But this was now a tricky sit­u­a­tion. Had the par­ents aban­doned their kids? Had our noisy pres­ence in the cot­tage thrown their life cy­cle out of whack? Who could care for these or­phaned owls, if they were in­deed or­phans?

We con­sulted Madame Fey­roux around the cor­ner, who was our guide in prac­ti­cal mat­ters. Be­ing a tough and in­scrutable na­tive, born and raised in the Dor­dogne wilder­ness, she didn’t seem wor­ried about the fate of the chicks. But she did Google the num­ber of a bird-res­cue cen­tre in Bordeaux, and I called it.

The best-case sce­nario, we thought, was that the cen­tre would send a he­li­copter es­corted by a squadron of Mi­rages, and Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron would join the mis­sion as a public­ity stunt. For our ser­vices to French bio­di­ver­sity, our fam­ily would be given a small hill­top chateau.

Next prob­lem: ex­plain­ing the cri­sis to the bird cen­tre in Bordeaux. My com­mand of French is equiv­a­lent to that of a French two-year-old: my pro­nun­ci­a­tion is de­cep­tively good, but my syn­tax and vo­cab give peo­ple the im­pres­sion that I am liv­ing with a dev­as­tat­ing cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment.

Never mind. With the help of Google Trans­late, I man­aged to tell a gar­bled tale: we are South Africans who are try­ing to care for a pair of aban­doned young hi­boux (owls). The vet lis­tened pa­tiently, then sug­gested I take the chicks to the near­est bird-res­cue cen­tre in South Africa.

No, no, no! These owls are French, I said. They’re as French as Char­lotte Gains­bourg. They are prac­ti­cally fir­ing up Gi­tanes and play­ing petanque on our drive­way. We are stay­ing in a barn near St Foy-la-Grande.

“Aha!” she said. “D’ac­cord!”

The vet pro­ceeded to give her ad­vice, and we fol­lowed it pre­cisely. We nes­tled the chicks in an open card­board box, and nes­tled the box in the crook of an apri­cot tree in the gar­den. We nes­tled the dead rat in the box too.

Then we went to a wine farm for the morn­ing. We rea­soned that the par­ents should res­cue their kids in peace. When we re­turned, hours later, the rat was still in the box. The chicks were gone.

But not com­pletely gone. That night, a fam­ily of owls danced in the at­tic.

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CAR­LOS AMATO

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