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Wesley the owl, p.17
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       Wesley the Owl, p.17

           Stacey O'Brien
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  Over the following week I spent the wee hours of every morning at La Costa coffeehouse tower recording the wild barn owls. The owl babies soon began taking short flights to nearby trees, sometimes settling there for the day. Now customers were starting to notice the owls and to mention them to John. They were so beautiful that they began to attract a small audience of bird watchers during business hours. But between 2:00 and 5:00 a.m. I had them all to myself.

  I decided to venture out of my car, since the owlets were now flying all over the place and getting hard to see from only one location. I was careful to move slowly, and for whatever reason, the owl mother didn’t harass me, maybe feeling that by now her babies could fend for themselves. But I could see that the father was running out of strength, looking peaked and downright unhealthy. He was still hunting constantly with the pressure of owl babies screaming at him, only now they were actually attacking him when he flew into the tower with a mouse. They had grown as big as he was and he wasn’t taking it very well. He couldn’t keep up with their demands.

  I thought of the big bag of frozen mice just up the hill at my apartment. I just couldn’t stand watching him exhausted and frazzled, hunting like mad only to get pushed around every time he brought food home. He was so faithful—trying so hard.

  I drove back home, grabbed a big bag of mice, and defrosted enough to feed the entire owl family for twenty-four hours. This should give Mr. Owl a break, I thought. I returned to my parking spot and got out of the car with the bag. If I could just throw the mice, one by one, up to the top of the roof, then surely the babies would eat their fill and the father could have a night off. I took one mouse, wound up my arm, and threw it with all my might. It fell painfully short of the top of the tower. I had never been good at this kind of thing. I tried again and again, but there was no way to get any pitching power out of my arm.

  So, here I was at 2:00 in the morning at a shopping mall throwing dead mice into the wind like a crazy person. I had become so intent on my task that I was completely startled to discover myself surrounded by a group of teenagers clad in black leather with piercings, tattoos, shaved heads, and muscle.

  I felt very alone, very small, very blond, and scared out of my wits. They were just staring at me.

  Finally, the biggest among them said, “What are you doing?”

  “Uh…” My heart was in my throat. I pointed up. “See those owls?”

  “No, I don’t see any owls.”

  “Well…there’s a nest of barn owls up there. And the father, uh, he’s exhausted because he’s been hunting and hunting for a couple of months, every night, and the babies are overwhelming him. He can’t hunt fast enough to keep up with them. See, if you look right up there, that’s him.”

  I pointed again.

  The tough kid looked up, “Oh! Okay, yeah, I see him.”

  “And you hear that loud screaming? That’s the babies.”

  “That sound is baby owls? No f____ing way!”

  He was interested, to my surprise. Perhaps this was not my last night on earth after all.

  “Okay, there’s a baby in that tree over there, see, and the rest are on top of the roof.” All of the kids craned their necks to see.

  “And I’ve been trying to throw these mice up there to give the dad a break, but I just don’t have a throwing arm and, well, there are mice all over the patio now ’cause I just can’t get them up that far.”

  For the first time they looked around and saw dead mice littering the concrete, then the big plastic bag full of dead mice, and finally, the four I had in my hand.

  “Oh, dude. This chick is throwing mice up to these owls! No way, man!” I could hear them all commenting to each other “Rad!”

  The ringleader stepped up and said, “I can throw. Give me those mice.”

  Amazed, I found myself placing four cold limp mouse carcasses into his huge palm. He hurled each one with pinpoint accuracy right up to the top of the roof, and the owl babies pounced on the mice and powered them down. Then he gestured for the bag and I handed it to him. The rest of the kids started throwing the mice that were lying around on the concrete.

  “Gross! Wow! Get that one! Get that one, Mike! Yeah! Got it! All right!” They gave each other high fives every time a mouse was on target. Then they’d watch the baby owl devour it. “Look at that guy eat that thing! He’s eating it whole. That’s rad, man. Cool!”

  “Dude, I’ve never seen real owls before. Do they only eat mice?” asked the big kid who had first approached me, then he stopped short, wondering the obvious. “Where did you get mice at two in the morning? What are you doing with a big bag of them?”

  I explained that I had been studying owls all my adult life and had majored in biology and worked with scientists.

  “Man, that’s what I want to do!”

  They threw all the mice until the owlets were sated and sleepy. The mother finally calmed down, and even the father was full of food and relaxed. The little owl family didn’t seem to mind our presence at all.

  Sitting along a concrete wall, the kids and I had a fascinating discussion about owls and their ways. Then we gave each other high fives, and they melted into the night. I was left standing there beneath the tower as the early-morning ocean fog rolled in, watching the owls resting with full stomachs and enough mouse snacks to last well into the following evening.

  DR. PENFIELD E-MAILED that he needed his recording equipment back. “Bring any tapes you have made so we can listen to them,” he said. We scheduled a day for me to visit his office at Caltech. Living two hours away, it’d been a long time since I’d dropped by. I missed the people and atmosphere there and was looking forward to an opportunity to reconnect.

  Because Dr. Penfield was so respected in his field, I was intimidated to talk with him, but he was always gracious.

  “Have a seat,” he said, on the day of my visit, pushing aside piles of papers and books.

  I set up the recorder and started playing the screams of the wild mother owl protecting her babies. He was fascinated by the range of sounds and asked me to narrate the accompanying owl behavior. I then played Wesley’s intimate vocalizations as we snuggled and played with magazines, as well as Wesley’s chattering “updates” when I came home from work. Dr. Penfield peppered me with questions and scribbled notations.

  “What else do you have?” he asked.

  “Well, uh…well, here’s one with Wesley’s nesting call. Although, I’m sure you’ve heard that in the aviaries at night, right?”

  I handed him the tape and he inserted it into the player and listened. We went through the foot stamping and “re-EEK re-EEK re-EEEK” of his nesting calls.

  “Okay, he’s found a nesting spot, and has possibly added his own improvements to it, such as a ripped-up magazine,” I explained.

  “So you know for sure that this is a male?” he asked.

  “Yes,” I answered. But he patiently suggested that I might not be able to be as certain as I thought I was.

  “Oh, I know he’s a male, Dr. Penfield,” I said.

  He lifted an eyebrow, then continued the tape. “Okay, go on.”

  “Well, he’s decided that the nest is ready for eggs, so he’s calling his mate…uh…ahem…he’s calling me to the nesting site…you see…he thinks I’m his mate…[cough cough].”

  If Dr. Penfield hadn’t been such a distinguished gentleman, it might not have been so difficult, but he had this aura of…well, of being so darned distinguished. Everyone felt it. Sitting in his office was like sitting in church.

  “He is bonded to you as a mate?” Dr. Penfield raised both eyebrows this time and paused the tape. “One moment, Stacey.”

  He slipped out of his office and to my horror called in several postdocs. He rewound the tape.

  “Good morning, everyone. This owl, Wesley, has bonded to Stacey here as his mate.” He gestured to me and I managed a weak smile. He hit Play. Wes started his nesting call again, but then the sound changed and Dr. Penfield said,
Now, what exactly is he doing here?”

  “Well, uh, this is the part where I come up to the nest.” The office felt very hot and stuffy.

  Wesley was making little awking sounds of familiarity and affection. Then there was a more urgent “ur ur ur…urururAWRk urk urk AAAWWRRRK…ur ur ur ur…ur ur ur AAAAWWRK.”

  Dr. Penfield’s eyes widened and he paused the tape again. “What is this sound? I have never heard this before!” he said.

  “Well…he’s positioned himself over my arm and…” More postdocs began to arrive. I heard whispers in back of me. “Have I missed anything?” “Yeah, the owl thinks she is his mate…”

  “How?” Dr. Penfield continued. “How is he positioned over your arm, exactly?”

  “Okay…well…uh…Okay…let’s see…ummm…he’s holding on to my left arm with both of his feet, gripping with his talons. I have my right arm perpendicular to my left arm, between his feet—he’s grabbing hold of my right arm, uh, with his knees…” (There was a titter from a postdoc.) “…The first time, I tried to fight him off, but it always becomes a physical battle unless I just let him go through with it…and…er…well…”

  Dr. Penfield was growing more and more enthusiastic. I was becoming less and less enthusiastic.

  “Oooh! So your arms are like this and he is like this,” he positioned one arm where my arm would be and his hand where Wes would be. “Am I right?”

  “Yeah, that’s it.” The postdocs leaned in. I slid down into my chair wanting to disappear.

  “And then what is this repeated sound?” He asked.

  “Uh…well…uh…that’s…well each ‘ur ur ur ur’ indicates him dipping down onto my arm and clutching with his knees and, well…um, rubbing on my arm sort of, and, well…you know.” (I heard increased chortles of delight behind me.)

  “Aaahh! I seeee! So those are the ‘ur ur ur.’ “He imitated the sound and indicated the movement of the owl on my arm by using his hand on his arm.

  “Yes,” I muttered in agony.

  “Well, then,” he continued, “What is the final AAAAWRK AAAAAWRK AAAAWRK sound then?”

  “Okay, well…that’s the actual, the…the…well…the actual…I guess you’d say it’s the…” (“Hee hee hee” wheezed a voice behind me. I wanted to punch the guy.) Now the boss was just beside himself.

  “Do you mean to say he actually has an orgasm on your arm? How do you know? Does he ejaculate? Is there actual sperm?!?”

  “Oh, yes,” I managed to say, “there’s sperm. He ejaculates, all right.”

  “How much sperm? Is there a lot? How do you know it is sperm? Did you look at it under the microscope?” (The voices behind me were now choking with glee.)

  My answers came out in rapid fire.

  “About one-eighth of a teaspoon. Yes, I looked under my microscope, and it is definitely sperm.”

  Dr. Penfield slapped his desk. “These are new sounds! And no wonder you knew he was a male!” He started delegating responsibilities to the postdocs. One ran to get the equipment. Another loaded the tape into the computer, and they all sat around while the contents of the cassette slowly appeared on the screen as sonograms. As each one came up, I explained every urk and ark and ur and de-Deep and mutter and grunt and chirrup, while another PhD sat taking notes madly.

  One woman asked if she could use my data for the PhD she was working on. Since I didn’t intend to pursue a PhD, I gave her permission. There was loose talk of my perhaps getting all of this on video and bringing that in, too, but it wasn’t followed up, thank goodness.

  At the end of the day Dr. Penfield told me, “Stacey, perhaps the most interesting aspect of your tapes is that you have fifteen or twenty different complete sequences of Wesley’s mating vocalizations, and none of them is exactly the same. If his mating act were purely instinctive, then the sound sequences would be identical every time, like a birdsong. But there is so much variation in his expressions that one has to conclude that each sequence is an individualized experience from the owl’s point of view.”

  I beamed. This was additional confirmation that owls are anything but simple. Wesley and other owls are emotional and show their feelings. They are intelligent and communicate their thoughts in creative ways that we don’t always recognize. In fact, many of the higher animals are not really that different from us, they are just “other.”


  Fifteen Years of Trust

  BACK BEFORE JOINING Caltech’s owl lab, I had thought owls only had one or two “looks,” but Wesley could move the skin under his feathers to create countless expressions, directing little groups of feathers this way or that. Each variation meant something vastly different. Sometimes he looked like a quizzical butler wanting to help in any way he could. At other times he looked like a Buddhist monk who had obtained the highest level of enlightenment. His black eyes could express mischief, ferocity, love, gentleness, innocence, intelligence, awareness, and absolute trust. When I paid attention to his facial and body language I could often discern exactly what Wesley was thinking, feeling, or about to do. It got to the point where I could “read” his feathers.

  A slight lifting of his third primary flight feathers meant he was thinking about flying. If he flattened the feathers around his face and dipped his neck slightly forward, it meant he might actually fly. If he spread his feet slightly apart, gripped his talons a little tighter, and focused his face sharply toward a landing spot, it meant he had, in fact, plotted a trajectory along which to fly. All of these were stages that gave plenty of warning and preceded the more obvious mannerisms of bending his legs and lifting his wings.

  While grooming, Wesley can pull patches of feathers into position for better access by moving the skin underneath. Stacey O’Brien.

  “How did you know that owl was going to do that?” the other workers were always asking me at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I volunteered.

  “You get at least three subtle warnings before they actually lift their wings to fly,” I would reply.

  Not only did Wesley seem to have infinite physical expressions, he kept up a running verbal commentary of twitters and chirps (positive), and hisses and clicks (of disapproval) on everything around him. From the day we moved into our own apartment and had our home to ourselves, he followed me everywhere, like a tiny man walking three feet behind, just tagging along to see what I would do. I loved my elegant little shadow, chattering constantly to himself and me. Like a play-by-play sports commentator, he’d describe everything he saw and like a color commentator he also conveyed exciting nuances with plenty of animation and exclamation. Amazingly, after fifteen years, I could understand most of it. He was the narrator, and I was the star of his show.

  She’s going into the kitchen…a fascinating place with all the clangy bangy shiny stuff, but it’s not for owls, no, no, no, not for owls and I’m not allowed in.

  One of the joys of having our own place was that I could bring him into any room, so that he could finally see what I did in the rest of the apartment. I’d set his perch so he could watch me in the kitchen from a safe distance.

  “I’m on my tether because she’s going to cook…and OOOOH she’s gonna make spaghetti! What an afternoon! She’s off to the sink. Water!” Eedle-deedle-DEE-DEE-deedle-deedle-dee!” Oh dear oh dear…“szzzhzhh,” I don’t approve of the stove…Oh, “hiss” and “click.” She tells me it’s dangerous so why does she go there?

  Oh, no. Steam. I don’t like that hissing sound it makes so I’m going to hiss. “HISSS.”

  I sat at the table and began to eat my meal. Wesley started pacing and picked up a mouse off his perch tray.

  What are you eating? That’s disgusting. I must intervene! I have a mouse for you! Here! A mouse, I say, a mouse! Look, look, look! Eat it!

  He lunged at me urgently with the mouse in his beak.

  Ugh, how can you eat that gross spaghetti? “Bbbrrrrzzzztttt.” Oh, gag, “hiss,” yuck. “Click click.”

  AS WESLEY SETTLED into a comforta
ble spot, his eyes would start to get heavy, then the sky-blue nictitating membranes would close partway, or he’d leave one eye slightly open and the other would droop comically. He’d fluff his feathers and transfer his weight onto one foot or the other, getting cozier and cozier. Then he’d spread out his forehead and nose feathers until his face assumed a squashed appearance. At some point he’d decide that he really was going to go to sleep.

  I’m tired. I think I’ll have a short nap.

  He fluffed and began to pull up his leg.

  …Oh, wait…What was that animal sound and where is the animal? A hamster is out! Against the rules! Against the rules! “Twittertwit hiss. Click click click.”

  Oh, good, she captured it and returned it to its rightful place. Big sigh.

  Oh, my goodness. What a wonderful life this is! What a wonderful incredible life!! Everything is sooo interesting.

  But now I really want to take a quick nap. Okay just a little nap. Take a little nap take a little nap. “Teep deep deep teeple teeple teeple…”

  Oh I have an itch. “Hiss.” I hate that just when I’m settling down. Okay, now I’m about to go to sleep. “Teep deep deep teeple teeple teeple.”

  He fell asleep and had a dream and screeched.

  …AAAAAAAA! “Who was that? Did you screech? It wasn’t me! You woke me up! Why did you screech?”

  Now he was talking to me directly. Wesley was always outraged when he woke himself up with a screech in his sleep, and he blamed me. He would whip around to face me with an intense librarian’s stare as if I had broken a cardinal rule.

  A relaxed pose on his adult perch with one foot halfway up. Stacey O’Brien.

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