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accommodation in the Garden Route, South Africa

It was a hoot to build the Fairview owl-house (Guest Blogger is our son Alex Benkenstein)

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This past December when I returned to my family’s home in George I had an overwhelming urge to take on a project. I’m all for lounging at the pool, trips to the beach, boozy lunches, extended dinners and afternoon naps, but this holiday season I wanted to produce something tangible, some kind of material proof that my holiday had consisted of more than an extended hedonistic haze. In a moment of inspiration it came to me: an owl house!
There are several large trees on my parent’s extensive property and the garden is a smorgasbord of seeding flowers, vegetables, fruit and insects. I’ve spotted knysna loeries, sunbirds, weavers and all manner of feathered creatures flitting among the shrubs and trees. Birds of prey, however, hold a special magnetism. Occasionally I’ve spotted a hawk swooping low onto a branch in the corner of the garden, perhaps hoping that my dad’s chickens had ventured from their coop. Late at night, when all is perfectly still and the streetlights glow eerily through the leaves, in the witching hour, you may be lucky to hear the hoot of an owl; and the chill that goes down your spine is perhaps very much like the chill going down tiny rodent spines quivering in the underbrush.
The first order of business was securing some kind of blueprint and basic instructions – fortunately these are readily available online (you can access a very nice guide at http://www.birdlife.org.za). My online research revealed that there were in fact two basic designs for owl houses in South Africa, a closed box with a single, round opening or a more open box with slats on all four sides. Barn owls, being used to roosting in rocky crevices, hollow trees and other dark nooks, prefer the closed box design, whereas spotted eagle owls, which roost on ledges or tree branches, like to have a room with a view. I had seen a spotted eagle owl in the large trees in front of the yard from time to time, so we opted for the open design.
I say “we” because I had enlisted the help of my brother-in-law, an engineer with an artistic eye and general dexterity when it comes to design and construction – basically someone who was far less likely than me to nail his thumb to a plank. Armed with our plans, we headed off to the hardware store for our materials, only to discover that wood had become ridiculously expensive. We settled for a few screws and a tin of varnish to protect our owl house from the elements. Back at home we raided my dad’s garage for old planks of untreated wood (treated wood contains insecticide that can be bad for your owls). I focused on cutting the planks to measure without removing any of my own extremities, while my brother-in-law, Michael, handled design and construction duties.In no time at all we had the basic structure together. After a few layers of varnish (outside only, it’s important to keep chemicals away from the owls), and our cabin was looking rather cosy for a couple of feathered lygophiliacs (those who love the dark).
The next phase was getting our owl house into the tree at the front of the yard. We had identified a spot on a branch about five or six meters up that would be perfect (first rule of real estate: location, location, location). I had cut my foot a few days earlier, so it was up to Michael to shimmy up the tree. My dad helped out as well, positioning himself on a branch about halfway up to our targeted spot. Showing great judgement, I opted to stay on the ground and hold the ladder. With Michael straddling a branch and wielding power tools, and my dad hugging the tree trunk, we hoisted up the surprisingly heavy owl house – it was all rather precarious to say the least. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before our owl house was secure in the tree and we were all down safely on the ground, gaping up at our work with big smiles.
My dad helped out as well

My dad helped out as well

Showing great judgement, I opted to stay on the ground and hold the ladder

Showing great judgement, I opted to stay on the ground and hold the ladder

The next phase was getting our owl house into the tree

The next phase was getting our owl house into the tree

Michael straddling a branch and wielding power tools

Michael straddling a branch and wielding power tools

My brother is a big believer in the idea of “build it and they will come”. When we were small Eckart cut off most of his own hair, as well as my sister’s (still in diapers) and mine so that he could build a nest outside “for the eagles”. Apparently something he had seen on MacGyver. In any event, you can imagine my mom wasn’t too pleased, particularly as my baby sister had only just grown enough hair to form her first, tiny ponytail. Standing on the lawn with Michael and my dad, perhaps there was a little part of me that hoped an owl would swoop right in, check out our handiwork, and settle down. Unfortunately it seems the slump in the real estate market has reached further than I had anticipated. Of course, I can accept that the owl house will need a few months to weather a little, for the smell of varnish to dissipate and the structure to blend more naturally into its surroundings. So, for now, we wait for the first occupants of Fairview Historic Homestead’s “room with a view”.

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