Wookie the Black Crowned Night Heron

When I was young girl, I had a pet bird named Wookie. My mother wrote a short story about him and I’m going to share it here. The pictures were taken by my father, Henry Rae Boys.

THE BIRD WITH THE DUAL PERSONALITY BY ILEENE HENDERSON BOYS (1939)

Wookie was a black crowned night heron. He was a wild bird by night and a pet by day.

At the time the children came into possession of this bird our family lived near a land locked bay of Central California, Morro Bay. Along the shore where a mountain flowed into the bay, a forest of willows grew in dense profusion. One of our favorite forms of recreation was to search for the luscious, wild blackberries which grew along the maze of little trails that led into the wilderness. It was while wandering through these trails, early in the month of May, that the girls were surprised to see a night heron flying in from the ocean. It swooped low over the willows and disappeared in their midst. The bird gave a peculiar call, evidently announcing his arrival to his mate. Then a loud fluttering noise ensued.

The children toyed with the idea of paying these birds a visit. Anne, 13 years old, and Helen, 11 years old, decided to investigate. Their curiosity soon led them through the thick entanglement of undergrowth to the center of the willows. Here the trees were larger. The dense branches at the top gave a ceiling like protection to the family life of the herons. The air beneath the trees was stifling, warm and foul with rancid fish odor. The ground and the trunks of the willows were moist and splashed with drippings.

These birds built their nests about thirty feet from the ground. They were crude, being made from twigs and sticks, however the nests were safely anchored to the heavy limbs where they forked from the main trunks. One of the nests contained two very pretty, pale blue eggs. They were about the size of a bantam egg.

Anne and Helen returned to the rookery within two weeks in order to study these interesting birds. In a nest they found two healthy baby herons. They were small, downy, mouse colored fledglings. The mother bird protested furiously over the intrusion so the girls made their visit brief. It seemed wrong to disturb her.

Three weeks passed and the children thought it would be nice to return to the rookery once again and watch the progress. They moved in a s silently as possible. The young herons must have sensed their presence because as Anne and her little sister approached they climbed from their nests and tried to hide among the branches. They used their long necks by hooking them over the limbs to aid in climbing more rapidly. It was amazing how fast these young, awkward looking birds could maneuver about the trees.

Then the unpredictable happened.

One of the birds slipped and caught its neck in a crotch of a branch. There it dangled helplessly. Anne saw the evidence where quite a few fledglings had suffered casualties in this way. They quickly rescued the bird and placed it in its nest. It refused to stay and fell to the ground. The girls were now obviously involved. There was just one thing left for them to do and that was to take the young heron home.

The first night the bird was put into a large box. He definitely objected; in fact he showed fight. The following day Anne gave him his freedom and turned him loose in a lemon tree in the back yard. Here he ‘cacked’ cheerfully and accepted the lemon tree as a substitute for his home in the willows. In a comparatively short time the bird was capable of running off the cats and dogs that ventured into the back yard. He darted at them viciously with a wicked squawk. Never once was the bird brought back into the house or inhibited in any way. He was fed fresh smelt several times each day. He was continuously hungry.

The night heron is a bird with a sharp brain. They have a vocabulary of close to twelve distinctly different sounds. The greeting call is “Coo-Wook.” Out bird registered worry, fear, joy, affection, hunger, sociability and satisfaction. He was noisy and ‘clacked’ constantly around the family. He also showed a preference and was positive about it. Anne was the one he loved most.

The girls named the bird “Wookie,” because of a similar sound he made when in an affectionate mood. He liked to be petted and had a way of coaxing us by fluffing out his wings. He enjoyed having his feathers smoothed under his throat but he never allowed us to lay a hand over his back or wings.

Wookie was a natural born hunter and it was hard on the frogs that strayed beneath the ferns and plants around the house. Wookie searched them out and when it became too difficult for a mere bird, he would beg the children to assist him. If they obliged by pulling the plants apart, he would put on a special act and dart at imaginary objects. Wookie always made a great clatter at the sight of a newspaper. To him a newspaper meant fish and food. He also understood when we told him we were going to the market for fish. He would wait on the garage roof until he saw the girls coming, then would fly to meet them.

Wookie was a male bird. His feathers were flecked with grey, but not drab. His legs and feet had a blue-green cast. He had a long, strong beak; a black top-knot and he was slightly larger than a sea-gull. The black crowned night heron has a wide wing spread.

In mating season, the male bird has a long feather which sweeps back from his top-knot and clings close to his head. The female bird is a trifle smaller and her coloring is pale in comparison.

The heron stayed close to the house until he was completely grown, then he decided to familiarize himself with the surrounding area. At first we worried, but he always came back and announce his arrival with a loud “Coo-Wook.”

A small bittern taught Wookie to fish. Day after day we watched them from the wharf. They would light on the mud flats in the bay when the tide was low. Here they diligently worked the shallow pools and amongst the kelp. At first, Wookie seemed to think it was some sort of a game, but the little bittern was an accomplished fisherman and it did not take our bird very long to grasp the idea. Once Wookie brought his little friend home to the neighbor’s fish pond but the bittern was easily frightened and did not come again.

Wookie grew bolder as the months went by. The girls noticed that he would refuse to come to them toward evening. Instead he flew to the top of the house. There he waited to join the wild birds from the rookery as they passed over. In the morning he would circle down to the roof with the usual greeting call. Then he became their pet for a day. They were careful to keep fresh fish on hand, which they fed the bird when he called in order to keep him coming home. Finally Wookie flew away and did not return again.

The children still call “Coo-Wook” when they see wild night herons flying overhead, always hoping that someday their bird will remember and come home once more.

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