Gene Hester looks the part of an outdoorsman.
The comfortably bent brim of his hat curves around the top of his round face that is filled with a smile as he steps into a small jonboat to go visit an unlikely friend.
Hester’s friend is a small barred owl he’s named Hootie.
The 83-year-old retired biologist befriended Hootie about seven years ago in a painstaking process that has made the owl so at ease that he is willing to approach within arm’s reach of Hester.
The friendship is so unusual, some of Hester’s friends and colleagues encouraged him to write a book about it.
His new, 30-page book, “My Friend Hootie,” is illustrated with about two dozen photos Hester shot. It tells the story of how Hester and Hootie got to know each other in easy-to read text suitable for readers from late elementary school age to adults.
The relationship began seven years ago when Hester’s son, Tom, spotted the owl on a Johnston County lake one day and called his father from the boat to let him know about the sighting.
Hester took off in search of the bird and found him. That’s when the biologist in Hester took over. He wanted to study the animal, so he used a recording of a barred owl’s call to attract the bird. It worked and Hester was able to view the bird.
But he wanted a better look, so he decided to lure the bird closer with some food. He researched the kinds of foods barred owls like and, through some trial and error discovered that this owl liked live fish that were readily available in the lake.
At that point, Hester decided the bird needed a name. His inner child bubbled to the surface, and he named the bird what every owl should be called – Hootie.
Over time, Hootie came to identify Hester and spot him as he crossed the lake toward a swampy area where the blossoming friendship was building. At times, he leads Hester to their meeting place. Other times, Hester gets there first and calls out. “Hootie! Hootie! Hootie!”
Within a few minutes the owl perches on a limb just across the water from a small island where Hester feeds him.
Hester says one of his friends chided him for turning the bird into a welfare case who expects a fish or two every time they visit. But Hester rejects that notion, saying the owl has trained him about as much as he has trained the owl.
“I felt like there were times when he had me doing things just like he wanted me to do them,” Hester said.
And he says, there are times when Hester’s unable to get out on the lake for months at the time.
“But when I go back, Hootie always shows up,” Hester said.
Hester delights in taking guests out to the swamp for a chance to meet Hootie.
“He doesn’t always come when I call him, but people love to see him and when he flies off after he picks up the fish, sometimes he will fly right over your head, and you can feel the wind he creates by flapping his wings,” Hester said.
He estimates that he’s probably taken about 100 people to see Hootie over the years. Four of them have painted portraits of the bird. Two other people created wood carvings of Hootie, and one even made a clay model of the owl.
A new way of writing
The idea of writing the book first came from Hester’s mentor and colleague Jack Dermid, a wildlife biologist who had heard Hester talk about taking guests out on his boat to see the bird. Many of those visitors, Hester told Dermid, were children who marveled at the sight of the wild creature when they saw him up close.
Dermid encouraged Hester to tell the story in a children’s book instead of writing a scientific paper as he had done on so many other occasions.
“It was a different kind of process for me, I can tell you that,” Hester said. “The stories in the book are true, but there are places where I took a few small liberties just to make the story entertaining. I didn’t really know what it took to make the story interesting to an 8-year-old or an 11-year old.”
Hester wrote the book in something of a chronological order, telling readers first about how he found Hootie and how he taught the bird to fly to just the right spot so he could get good photographs. Hester said barred owls generally live about 18 years.
He hopes the friendship has many more years ahead.