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Wesley the owl, p.13
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       Wesley the Owl, p.13

           Stacey O'Brien
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  “Yes, you could save some money and get ahead a little. I’ve got two empty bedrooms, and it’s a short bike ride to the beach. Move in as soon as you can.”

  When it was finally time to leave Wendy’s place, I packed my car and put Wesley in his carrier. Leaving him in my now-empty bedroom for a few minutes, I went around to the backyard to give Courtney the dog a big hug. I said good-bye to the goats and horses. The geese honked in their normal loud chorus as I went back into the house.

  Wendy was standing in the entryway with Annie at her side wearing an adorable calico dress. With long, thick, curly hair, she was a lovely child—a thoughtful, circumspect little girl with a wit that belied her youth. Finally, I went to get Wesley. Wendy leaned over and said good-bye to him through the carrier door. He seemed to sense the seriousness of the moment and didn’t threaten her as usual, but chirruped and twittered instead, maybe because he was now out of his own territory.

  I gave Wendy and Annie a big hug. “Good-bye! Good-bye! Keep in touch! Good luck!” and Wesley and I were on our way.

  It was a long drive down the coast to my mom’s house. Wesley slept peacefully in his carrier, having grown accustomed to this mode of travel from our long commutes to Caltech during his baby days. I drove past a “Welcome to Huntington Beach” sign and opened the window. A blast of cool salty ocean air filled the car.

  My mom was waiting with a big hello. She leaned down to say hi to Wesley and he chirped right back. My bedroom was big and Wesley would have plenty of room to fly. As soon as he saw his perch go up he knew we were moving in together and all was well. He jumped up to his spot on the top dowel, groomed himself, fluffed up slowly to maximum poofiness, then shook himself head to toe like a dog. Now, he was settled in. Just like that. Some animals—especially cats—are upset by big changes, but this move didn’t seem to bother Wesley at all.

  I had a week before my new job started. I usually wore old sweats and T-shirts with lab coats to Caltech, which were probably unsuitable for Aerospace. I mentioned this to my mom at breakfast and she said, “Then let’s go shopping!”

  Off we went. I tried on all kinds of trendy, professional-looking office clothes. Standing in front of a mirror modeling a well-coordinated suit, I noticed my long straight hair.

  “Mom, I can’t go in looking like this,” I said. “I haven’t changed my hair since I was twelve years old.”

  “Well, it’s so long you can style it in a lot of different ways,” she replied.

  When we got home I went into the bathroom and put on one of my spiffy new outfits with a pair of pumps, instead of real shoes. I felt like I was walking around on tiptoes. How do people get used to these things? I thought. Then I played around with putting up my hair with a few bobby pins and clips. I could achieve several professional looks. Finally, I was happy with the swept-up do I had created and went to the kitchen to show my mom. She loved it.

  “Wow, Stacey, that’s wonderful, perfect for your new job. With this new look you’ll meet some nice, stable engineer and settle down, instead of dating all those flaky musicians.”

  “Oh, Mom.” I sighed and walked down the hall. I was so uncomfortable in those confining clothes with my hair pinned every which way.

  As I stepped back into my room, Wesley saw me, screamed, and ballooned out into a full threat display.

  “What? What? Wesley, what are you doing?” I said.

  Then he attacked. I leapt backward and ducked. He feinted away from me, flew across the room, and landed. He stared at me, gyrating his head around and around, and forward and back. In times of extreme emotion he had a double stomp with one foot: wackWACK, wackWACK. He let out a long hissing scream and clacked his beak. Then I saw that he wasn’t looking at my face at all, but staring at the top of my head.

  “Oh! My hairdo!” I realized he was trying to kill my hairdo. It must have looked like a fluffy blond predator was attached to my head.

  I tore out the bobby pins as fast as I could and pulled down my hair.

  But Wesley still wasn’t convinced. He shook his head over and over again and stared at me with his piercing black eyes. I went over to pick him up, but he dodged me. He was still focused on the top of my head and he screamed again. “It’s all right, Wesley. It’s all right,” I said softly, standing very still. “I’m okay.” He flew around the room several times and landed on his perch. He stayed there for the rest of the evening instead of playing, keeping one eye on my head at all times.

  “Wesley,” I sighed, “when I brought you into my life, I didn’t know that I would never be able to change my hairdo.” But in the wild, his mate would not have suddenly appeared with a fantastic new feather-do. Besides, I didn’t really want to change my hair. I guess the Aerospace Corporation would just have to accept me as I was.

  Wesley was nonchalant about some rather big changes, like the move to Huntington Beach. But he was extremely aware of anything on or near me. Later, I had almost exactly the same experience with him the day I went into the bedroom wearing sunglasses, and again when I forgot I was wearing a baseball cap.

  Having spent a day sorting out my wardrobe, I still had the rest of the week to explore my new surroundings. Late one afternoon my mom offered to take me on a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. We had only gone a mile or two when I saw a sign saying “Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Wetlands.”

  “What’s that?” I asked.

  “It’s a wildlife area with walking and biking trails. There was a long, protracted battle to save it from development. It’s become a crucial habitat for many endangered species of birds. Most of the other estuaries have been filled in and paved over.”

  “Let’s stop and check it out,” I said.

  We pulled into a small parking lot. A sign listed all kinds of birds that frequented the preserve. Out in the estuary, the first ones I noticed were the herons and egrets—magnificent waterbirds, slender, graceful, and tall. The great blue herons, at thirty-nine to fifty-two inches, were almost as tall as I was at five feet, and the great egret was almost as tall. Some of them stood peacefully asleep with one foot pulled up, and some waded in the shallows with long fluid strides. Occasionally one would halt and stay motionless for a few seconds and then spear the water, coming up with a flashing silvery prize wriggling in its beak.

  Photographers were lined up along one of the bridges, taking evening shots with the pink sky slowly turning into a blazing red and reflecting on the water. It was spectacular. “I’m coming here as often as I can,” I told my mom. “I could ride my bike, it’s so close.”

  When I got home, Wesley chirped a greeting. “I saw thousands of birds today,” I told him. “They hunt like you but otherwise they are totally different. They’re waterbirds, perfectly designed for life beside the sea.”

  The next day, while I was organizing things in my room, Wesley began to beg at the door, asking to go out. He had a specific sound for this, which he uttered while staring intently at the door crack. Wesley had always begged this way at Wendy’s house and would run straight to the bathroom after I let him out.

  At about one year old, Wesley begs to go out the door. Stacey O’Brien.

  “Wesley, you don’t even know where the bathroom is,” I said and continued to organize things in the room. Wesley then stood in front of the door and pulled up one foot to wait for me, with an air of resignation. “Okay,” I sighed, “I’ll open it.” I wondered where he would go.

  Wesley charged down the hall in his awkward galumph, and without hesitation ran straight into the bathroom. I was amazed. How had he known? Ah. He had heard me go in there to wash my hands and run the water and already knew the location of the bathroom. Owls map their world by sound. I kept forgetting that.

  Wesley could hear things that I couldn’t even perceive, and sometimes he would freak me out by staring at some spot on the wall and hissing, even going into a threat display. When I went to the spot and pressed my ear against it, I might hear the tiniest sound—perhaps a mouse or bug walki
ng along or chewing. Once, he started going nuts about the trash can, staring at it, doing exaggerated head gyrations, and trying to get off his leash to investigate. I went through the trash piece by piece until I found a small bug walking on a piece of paper, which must have sounded loud to Wesley.

  Another time, Wesley attacked a wall with all his might, racing across the room and thrusting his talons into it, then sliding to the ground, making his victory cry. As he landed, he hunched over his “kill,” mantling as he would have over a live mouse he had hunted. But I couldn’t see anything there. I searched all over—the wall, the floor, the area beneath his feet. He hissed and continued to behave as if he had killed something. Finally I lifted his feet, one by one, and found, pressed into the pink “palm” of the bottom of one foot, a smashed spider. I started laughing as I peeled off the dead spider, “Is this your prey? Are you looking for this, Wesley?” “De DEEP DEEP DEEP DEEP deeple deep!” he responded happily. He had heard that spider walking on the wall and had attacked. I never stopped being amazed and surprised by his auditory abilities.

  WESLEY EXPLORED THE bathroom thoroughly. At Wendy’s house, the shower had doors that enclosed it all the way to the ceiling, but here we had a bathtub with a shower curtain. He took an immediate interest in the curtain, going under it and behind it, like a kid playing hide-and-seek. He decided that the small space between the tub and curtain would make a great nesting nook and began his earsplitting mating call. I remembered my assignment from Dr. Penfield but realized that in the context of normal life, the task was, well, odd. I decided to wait until my mom wasn’t home.

  Wesley continued his exploration of the bathroom. He checked the top of the toilet for magazines. Yep, they were there. He seemed pleased. Then he went behind the toilet, which had been one of his favorite spots in the other house. He twittered contentedly. Then he flew up to the counter to check the sink. It looked pretty much the same, so he started his “Please put water in the sink” sound and I turned the faucet on. He swished his face and had a drink.

  I went through the bathroom and generally owl-proofed it. At Wendy’s house the toilet lid was textured, but here it was slick. Wesley flew to it, slid across and fell over the other side with an outraged squawk. “You’re hopeless,” I said, picking him back up. I placed a heavy towel over the lid so he could land there. “Owls are not adapted to toilets, Wesley,” I told him, carrying him back to the bedroom.

  Eager to return to Bolsa Chica, I rode my bike there that afternoon. A small flock of ducks was swimming in the estuary, occasionally dipping their bodies under the water. The ducks were so buoyant that they had to paddle hard to stay down for a few seconds before bobbing back up. Water droplets spilled off their outer feathers like jewels. The air filled with California least terns, wheeling around, calling to each other, and glancing at the water. Every few seconds one of them would dive underneath the surface and emerge with a little fish, shake itself, and dart back into the sky. Although I was nervous about my new job, I could tell that spending time at Bolsa Chica would be the perfect remedy. Near sunset, I rode my bike home along wide stretches of nearly empty beach, where large groups of seagulls were clustered together for the night.

  Wesley was waiting anxiously for my return and when I entered the room he immediately begged to be let out again. “Okay, Wes,” I said. “I think the bathroom is safe for you now.” I let him out and he made a beeline for it. I followed, closed the door behind him, and went to the kitchen to have dinner with Mom. Just as we started to eat, I heard Wesley make a big exclamation of joy. My mom said, “Your owl must be having a great time in the bathroom with all that racket…” I dropped my fork and ran down the hall.

  When I opened the door, I could hardly believe my eyes. I had accidentally left the toilet lid open, and Wesley had jumped in. He was soaked to the skin, with little wet punk rock feather spikes sticking out everywhere. He looked up at me happily with one wing slung casually over the seat. He had dragged wads of toilet paper in there with him, and it was all over his body in soggy little clumps. Water and bits of tissue covered the entire bathroom. He was shivering violently.

  “Wesley! Now what have you done?” I said. He chirruped. I lifted him out of the toilet, heavy with water, and he fought to get out of my arms, kicking and squirming to jump back in the bowl. Now I was soaked and covered with soggy toilet paper. He struggled until he saw me close the lid.

  I wrapped him in towels and tried to warm him. “You should have been born a heron, Wes!” He still shivered. This was unbelievable. “There is no such thing as a water owl, you crazy bird.” I could not get him dry with towels and it was plain that he was dangerously cold. Dr. Penfield had said that being chilled might kill an owl. I could only think of one way to get him dry, but it wasn’t going to be easy.

  “Wesley, I’m going to blow you dry, okay? You are cold and you need to get warm, so I’m going to dry you off.” Even if he didn’t understand my words, my tone of voice and my explaining meant to him that I was preparing to do something deliberate. It seemed to calm him in new situations.

  I rarely used the blow-dryer myself. When I turned it on, he tried to fly away from the sound and discovered that his wet wings wouldn’t lift his heavy, waterlogged body. This scared him even more and he started running. I caught him and set him on a towel on my lap. I turned the dryer down to low. Every time the warm air hit him he started kicking and struggling. He was so delicate that I let him go when he resisted too strenuously, so that he wouldn’t hurt himself. Maybe showing him would help, since he always wanted to do what I did.

  So I started blowing my hair. He watched solemnly from the floor, trembling and looking so rumpled and bedraggled I felt sorry for him. I waved the blow-dryer at myself, then aimed it at him on the floor. He startled when he felt the breeze, jumping a little and raising his wings. But then I turned it away from him and back on to myself. “Mmmmm, this feels good,” I said. I pretended to groom myself and he began to preen his feathers. I aimed it back at him. This time he didn’t jump. He stood still with a look of martyred endurance on his face. I turned it back to myself before he could get scared again. By doing this over and over, I was able to convince him to stand still while I aimed a low warm flow of air at him and dried his feathers. In fact, I thought he looked like he was beginning to enjoy it. I hope I never have to do that again, I thought as I put the blow-dryer away.

  When I emerged from the bathroom, dinner was cold, of course. I was wet and had bits of soggy toilet paper all over me. Mom dropped her jaw, and I said, “My owl thinks he’s a duck.”

  That night I assembled the recording equipment Dr. Penfield had loaned me. Mom would be out tomorrow afternoon, and I wanted to get some audiotaping done before my job started.

  Early the next morning, I rode down to the beach again. I was thrilled to see a large flock of endangered California brown pelicans approaching like a formation of B-52 bombers, zooming over the ocean only inches from the surface with their heads tucked back and their wings fully extended. Spotting a school of fish, they flew up, flipped over, folded their wings tight to their bodies, and dove straight down, like the owl I had seen doing aerobatics five years ago. But instead of pulling up at the last second, they crashed into the water at 40 to 45 miles per hour. Pelicans have small bubbles embedded in their skin that inflate as they hit the surface, like tiny airbags. These protect their body and organs from the impact of diving, as if they’re encased in bubble wrap. The fish, however, are not so lucky. A shock wave from a hit at that speed stuns all of them within six feet. The pelican then swims around under water and scoops them up. It’s elegant.

  When I got back home Wesley was begging again to go to his beloved water park, the bathroom. “Just a minute, Wesley,” I said, trying to stall. But Wesley could not be put off for long. In the wild, mated owls don’t stop each other from doing what they want. So once Wesley set his mind on something, there would be no peace until I gave in. I quickly carried the recording gear into th
e bathroom, pointing the microphone at the area between the shower curtain and tub.

  I untethered Wesley and he rushed down the hall right to his favorite new nesting area. He started his call, and in that small room it was louder than ever, reverberating off the hard bathroom surfaces. I clicked on the recorder and sat by quietly while Wesley repeated his harsh, relentless cries. I was able to record a good long chunk of his mating call before he suddenly jumped on my arm. The cry turned into the squawking parrot sound he always made and at last the one great screech at the end. Perfect.

  I was still a little confused as to why Dr. Penfield wanted this recording. Earlier in his career, he had put an infrared camera inside a barn owl nesting box and recorded their sounds for two years. Surely he had heard every possible vocalization an owl could make by now. But I was happy to have succeeded in my assignment.

  I gathered up the equipment and opened the bathroom door. There stood Mom.

  “What on earth is going on?” she asked.

  “Mom!” I yelped. “Uh, that was Wesley’s mating cry.”

  “Well, for goodness’ sake, he sounds absolutely hysterical. The poor creature, there isn’t a female owl anywhere around here for him.”

  “Mom, Wesley thinks I am his mate. He’s making those calls to me.” I could see her processing that statement.

  “I hope you don’t tell people about this, Stacey, because they wouldn’t understand,” she said, as she turned on her heel and went to her bedroom.

  As I prepared to get into the tub that night, I tethered Wesley in my room. “I won’t be long, Wes,” I said. “I’m going for a bath.” But it was not to be. When he heard me in there splashing water, he started begging insistently, making his series of owl comments, exclamations, and lectures that let me know just how put out he was that I was leaving him behind while I had fun. I couldn’t stand it anymore. Perhaps if I just let him into the bathroom, he would play with a magazine while I bathed. Dripping, I climbed out and looked down the hall, the coast was clear. I ran into the room, released Wesley, and raced back into the bathroom with him galumphing joyfully behind me, wings out like an airplane as always. Then I closed the door, handed Wes a magazine, and slipped behind the shower curtain.

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