It was a regular day for volunteer firefighter Matt Owens as he drove home from visiting a friend and spotted a fluffy little bird on the side of the road. He had no idea when he pulled over to investigate just how special that bird would be.
"I found it was a little baby magpie and she had blood on her and a puncture wound," recalls Matt. "So, I wrapped her up in a towel and took her home with me."
His neighbour, a vet, took a look at the injured chick and pronounced that if she made it through the night, she'd be all right – and Matt was thrilled the following morning to find his new rescue, now named Swoop, was indeed alive and well.
His one reservation about inviting Swoop to move in while she recovered was his cat Mogli. But, undeterred, Matt kept Swoop high up on a table away from his four-legged friend and after a week, he was satisfied the friendly feline wasn't eyeing Swoop up for lunch. It was time the two met.
"I was pretty worried, to be honest," smiles Matt. "The usual verdict on cats is that they are predatory towards birds, so I was really relieved and surprised when he took to her. It didn't take long for them to hang out with each other and I'd often snap them cuddling on the couch, fast asleep."
As Swoop recovered, Matt started training her. He taught her how to forage for bugs in the garden and slowly helped her build her confidence in flying.
He shared her progress – and her blossoming friendship with Mogli – online @swoopandmowgli and a loyal social media following quickly grew to more than 135,000 followers.
Not only did Swoop bring companionship, he says, but she also helped him through one of the hardest times of his life.
"The week I found Swoop, my dad told me he had leukaemia and probably didn't have long to live," Matt shares.
"I was looking after him full-time and I would take Swoop with me. You've got all these feelings and emotions going through you, but then you've got this little thing that needs your love and attention. So, it gave me a little bit of an escape."
Though Matt mostly kept Swoop away from his dad Athol Owens because he didn't want to risk her passing on any diseases, the 34-year-old says his father was very fond of the little bird and even bought a special enclosure at his home in Auckland's Mt Eden for when she came to stay.
A year later, Athol sadly passed away and the day Matt returned home from the funeral, he discovered that Swoop had also left the nest.
At first, he searched high and low for her, holding out hope she'd return, but eventually he accepted that the bird was gone.
"It was quite bittersweet," Matt explains. "I'm a big believer that the universe just does things in its own way. And this was just part of that universal plan."
But even after she was gone, Swoop continued to change Matt's life.
A few months after she flew the coop, Matt was tagged into a painting of Swoop by an artist he'd never met. It turned out that the artist, Emma Gustafson, had spent that summer at her family bach down the road from Matt at Hudson's Beach in Āwhitu Peninsula, just south of Auckland, and Swoop had been a regular visitor.
Matt had already been thinking about writing a children's book about Swoop and Mogli's beautiful friendship, and it felt like fate that Swoop had now brought a talented artist into his life.
"I pitched the idea to see if she would write a children's book with me," says Matt, whose book The Story of Swoop, with illustrations by Emma, is on sale now at all major bookstores.
"Swoop's responsible for the whole thing. I wouldn't have been writing a children's book if I hadn't found Swoop and I wouldn't have even known the artist if Swoop hadn't introduced me to her."
Despite his love for Swoop, Matt stresses that people shouldn't pick up baby magpies if they find them in the wild.
"If there's no sign of injury and they're in a safe place, the best thing to do is leave them there," he advises.
Since Swoop's departure, Matt has continued his bird-whispering ways. He helped raise a flock of ducklings after a pair of Muscovy ducks decided to call his backyard home, and he recently took in another baby magpie who was found in the middle of the road next to her squashed sibling. He has named her Zoe.
"It was a very different experience to when I had Swoop because they have different personalities," says jade carver Matt. "Zoe initially was going through some kind of depression and she was really inside herself."
And although Mogli and Zoe live amicably alongside each other, he says nothing will ever replace the love that Swoop and Mogli shared – a one-in-a-million friendship of feather and fur.
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