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Wesley the owl, p.2
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       Wesley the Owl, p.2

           Stacey O'Brien
 
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  Before I worked with owls I had never even heard of nightjars, and I used to skip over the parts of books that discussed how many millions of years ago an animal appeared on the world stage. But once I had my owl, this information became fascinating to me. His “tribe” had been here, probably living very close to where we were at that moment, for some 1.6 million years. What really blew my mind was that, in all that time, every single one of his ancestors had successfully bred and had a baby survive to breed. For 1.6 million years. There wasn’t a single break in the chain, or he wouldn’t have been here. Of course, this is true for every one of us who is on the planet—which seems like an incredible miracle.

  Some scientists think birds may have evolved from dinosaurs, and to look at my owlet’s feet and beak, especially before he had feathers, it sure seemed possible. Recent fossil discoveries suggest that some dinosaurs were warm blooded, had feathers, and kept their babies in nests, feeding and caring for them just like the parents of birds do now.

  Another attribute that makes owls unique is their brain structure, which is completely different from that of most vertebrates. The barn owl’s cortex is mostly dedicated to processing sound rather than visual images. I wondered how that would affect the way the owl interacted with me and my visually oriented domestic world. He must have a very different viewpoint, foreign to us. His world would be even more different from, say, a dog’s, because dogs process their sensory information primarily through their noses and eyes. Dogs are mammals and social, so we humans and they have learned how to get along and live with each other over millennia. Some scientists even think that dogs and people helped each other evolve to our current forms. But it would be challenging to learn to live with this nonsocial animal. Owls don’t stay in flocks, but individuals are devoted to their mates, living a mostly solitary life together.

  Not only are owls interesting creatures historically and physiologically, but their temperament is also unique. Owls are playful and inquisitive. A friend of mine knew someone who had rescued a little screech owl and she described it as acting like a kitten with wings. She said the owl would fly up, then pounce on all kinds of objects exactly as a kitten does. Owls could also be creative. Sometimes I’d be walking by an office in the Caltech Owl Lab and see an owl making up his own game—throwing a pencil off a desk just to watch it fall and roll on the floor, then flying off the desk himself, twisting in the air to get a good angle, then pouncing on the pencil. I also saw postdocs talking nose-to-beak with their owls when they thought no one was looking; rubbing noses, kissing, and playing little games. They seemed to enjoy each other’s company in the same way that dogs and people do. Could my owl and I develop such a great rapport? I wanted to find out. After all, this curiosity and desire to experience animals and learn from them directly is what drives a person to become a biologist or naturalist in the first place, much as the space scientist is driven to find out what’s on that next planet or in that new star system. Perhaps this was finally my chance to get to know a wild animal in the way I had always dreamed of as a child. I wouldn’t be traveling thousands of miles and bushwhacking into the jungles of Africa or the Amazon to find my special animal. My owlet was coming to me.

  2

  To That Which You Tame, You Owe Your Life

  AT THE TIME I adopted my owlet, I was renting a room from my best friend, Wendy, who lived with her husband in a ranch-style home in a Southern California area where everyone had horses and other farm animals. In Wendy’s case this included chickens, a flock of noisy geese, an Andalusian stallion, and a goat and mare that were inseparable. Wendy was a painter and musician. She and her husband were frequently on the road performing in concerts, and I looked after all the animals when they were away. Wendy was also pregnant and was going to need my extra help with the baby as well.

  We’d been friends since I had somehow bested her at a rowdy game of flag tag on horseback at a summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains where Wendy taught horseback riding. Wendy had a special way with horses, and over the years I honed some of my techniques for working with wild animals by watching her. Although I was twelve and she was eighteen when we met, the age difference didn’t seem to matter because we shared so many of the same interests, including a passion for music.

  When I first mentioned the injured orphan owl to Wendy, she was out in the barn taking pictures of her mare. I was a little nervous about asking if I could bring an owl home to live with us, but she just smiled and patted her horse on the neck.

  “A barn owl! Won’t he be a great addition to the family!”

  “Wendy,” I said, “I’ll have to keep dead mice in the freezer and cut-up mice in the fridge. Would that be okay?”

  “Meat is meat,” she shrugged.

  “I mean, a lot of mice, Wendy.”

  “A lot of mice? How many is a lot?”

  “Well, probably thousands of mice as time goes by.”

  “How long do barn owls live, anyway?” she asked.

  “I’m not sure how long they live in captivity. Maybe up to fifteen or twenty years.”

  “Well, I think you should do it,” she said. “It’s the chance of a lifetime.”

  IN THE WILD, the father owl hunts relentlessly. He has to provide approximately six mice per baby per night. The usual brood is five babies. The father also has to feed his mate, who never leaves the nest and eats about three mice per day. And he must feed himself about four mice a day. This adds up to some thirty-seven full-grown mice every night during nesting season.

  A father owl is constantly harassed and henpecked, as the screeching and begging sounds from the nest are never out of his earshot. Wild males hunt like crazy, continually racing back to the nest where unruly babies all mob him at once, demanding food, virtually attacking the beak that feeds them. When the babies are older, the father avoids this confrontation by swooping in, hovering above the nest, and dropping his mouse pay-load from a safe distance. Then he zooms off to do it again.

  In the wild, barn owls do not live that long. Only one out of fifteen even lives through the first year. They get hit by cars, since they tend to fly at about the same height as a car or truck and are confused by the lights and noise of traffic. They die by flying into live electrical wires, and they’re especially vulnerable to poisoned meat, such as a mouse that’s eaten poison. Habitat loss is probably the main cause of drops in barn owl populations. Domestic cats, allowed to roam outside, occasionally kill barn owl babies—as do raccoons, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, and bigger species of owls, such as barred and great horned owls, harriers, hawks, and eagles. Barn owls may even get mobbed and pecked to death by smaller birds like crows and ravens. Worst of all, some people shoot them “for fun” or because they dislike birds of prey, though it’s a federal crime punishable by a mandatory jail sentence and a large fine.

  The one out of fifteen barn owls that makes it into his second year faces all of these dangers. In the wild, the females lay one egg a day for about five days. When the eggs hatch, one per day, each owl is one day older—and bigger—than the next. Since the babies grow so fast, the first will always be the biggest and strongest; the second baby will be the next biggest and strongest, and so on down to the smallest and weakest last-born. The parents feed the strongest, most aggressive babies first, until they’re completely full. In a good year everyone gets fed, but in a lean year, the youngest babies starve. As cruel as this may sound, it’s better than underfeeding all of them and having them all die.

  Of course, some weak, “unfit,” traumatized owls, like my orphan baby who survived long enough for a kindhearted human to find and rescue him, are brought to rehabilitation centers.

  At Caltech many of our tame barn owls would attach to one scientist and usually hang out in that person’s office, though truth be told, they had the run of the whole floor. Other wild barn owls lived together in aviaries and flight runs in a huge barnlike building near our offices. I worked with a team of enthusiastic scientists doing top-notch
research in a fun, easygoing atmosphere. We were encouraged to observe our birds as closely as possible in order to gain a deeper understanding of them. Dr. Penfield had kept his own owl at both his home and office for nearly two decades.

  Because owls have no external genitalia, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish males from females, even for an expert, unless you were to perform a minor surgery that allows you to see their organs. Dr. Penfield hadn’t wanted his owl to be surgically invaded, and neither did I, so we both opted to guess at their sexes. We both guessed male, but to Dr. Penfield’s chagrin, at around age fifteen his owl laid an egg.

  Owls fly fast, even many that are not releasable into the wild, and it wasn’t unusual to round a corner in the hallway at our lab and have to jump out of the way of an owl flying at you full steam. Our big, open conference area had floor-to-ceiling windows, and if we forgot to close the curtains on a beautiful California day, a flying owl might wump into the glass. Fortunately, owls are extremely well padded, with many layers of downy fluff and feathers, so they weren’t injured or killed by these mishaps as other birds can be. But the entire length of the windows had perfect cartoonlike owl-shaped imprints where bits of their feathers stuck to the glass.

  Tame barn owls were part of our daily lives, wandering through our offices, sometimes walking with their galumphing gait, sometimes flying like fighter pilots, sometimes hovering, sometimes gliding. It was a lot like working at Hogwarts, except that, instead of receiving letters from our owls, we would find coughed-up owl pellets in our coffee mugs. Of course, owls on the loose seemed strange to the uninitiated. One day an electrician came to work on the building’s power supply, when, seemingly out of nowhere, an owl flew around a corner right at him. The poor guy let out an unearthly scream and hit the floor, covering his head and yelling in Spanish. In Mexico, it is believed that an owl’s appearance can predict a death: owls are bad omens there and supernatural powers are attributed to them. I ran to the electrician, knelt on the floor, and explained the owl’s presence in Spanish as he peered at me through his arms, cowering in fear. He didn’t seem to believe me because he got up and raced to the nearest exit.

  More in line with the Native Americans of Southern California who believe that owls are sent to guide us through dark places as friends, I consider owls a good omen. Certainly barn owls have been friends of farmers for thousands of years, keeping down the mouse populations in barns and grain storage areas. Barn owls might be the source of other myths, though, like the Celtic banshee—a spirit who screams at night—and the belief in haunted houses. The screech of a barn owl as it rockets out of an abandoned house can be terrifying if you don’t know what it is. Today, we might liken it to the sound of an eighteen-wheeler losing its brakes. Imagine hearing that sound before the Industrial Revolution! Surely only a demon could have made such a harrowing noise.

  But, for me, every time I have been about to go through a major change in my life—for the better—a flesh-and-blood owl appears right at the time I’m making a decision. They do seem to appear to guide me. One Sunday evening, returning from a weekend in the Sierra Mountains, I had the rural road to myself and the driver’s side window down to enjoy the breeze. Out of the blue, a barn owl swooped down to eye level—right alongside the car. He flew next to me, almost touching my shoulder with his wing. I could have easily reached out to touch him. I was coasting down a hill and going slowly enough that I could look over at him—our eyes met as he looked over at me!—then we both looked back to where we were headed; then back at each other. We kept up this back and forth till we came to a curve in the road, at which he peeled off into a meadow. It was an amazing close encounter. (And it made me feel confident about what I had to do when I got back home.)

  When I began working at the institute’s owl aviary, among the barn owls were also a few great horned owls, some burrowing owls, and several long-eared owls with nowhere to go. We took in these other species out of a sense of charity, rather than for study. Unlike the tame owls that stayed with us in our personal quarters, all the wild owls were occasionally fed rats in addition to mice, because of their easy availability. Mice are about the size of a Snickers bar, and owls usually swallow them whole with nothing left over, which is much cleaner. But mice were more expensive and harder to come by. Hence the rats.

  Some research lab from which we got our rats must have been doing genetic experiments, because their rats were huge, at least two feet long. They were delivered whole and frozen, and we used a meat cleaver to chop them into slices, like frozen rat pucks. We’d place the thawed, fur-edged rat patties into the aviary runs, where the owls would pick at the meat. Stray meat would fall through the slats of the aviary’s wooden floor and onto an undulating layer of cockroaches three feet below. They made quick work of the rat meat, but they also had the annoying tendency to come up from below and crawl around in full view. The owls themselves lived about twenty to thirty feet above all this.

  Because we did not want to enter the areas that held the wilder, more nervous owls too often, and overstress them, we hosed the remnants of the discarded and rotting rat parts daily to the back of the aviaries, where they developed into putrid piles. The stench was off the charts.

  There’s a definite cultural pressure among biologists to withstand the extremely gross without reacting. It has to do with gaining credibility among other scientists. Part of my job was to feed and clean up after the animals, so about every three months I’d go into the owl aviaries covered from head to toe in rain gear, heavy boots, a helmet, gloves, and face shield. I’d shovel the piles of green rat sludge, which writhed with zillions of maggots, into large garbage bags and hauled the whole mess into Dumpsters. Ugh. Maggots rained down on me with a pattering sound. The smell was like a living thing that swirled around me and beat its way into every nasal membrane and pore in my body. As a matter of survival we are programmed to flee from death and decay; I did want to run, but I had to override instinct to get the job done. I was quite proud of myself for not passing out.

  For obvious reasons this feeding system wasn’t too great, so we eventually constructed a multimillion-dollar, owl-friendly system of aviaries—blessedly designed with a self-flushing subfloor—in another building. When the day came to transfer the owls from the old to the new building, we caught them with special flex nets and put them in cardboard cat carriers for the short trip. Owls have strong opinions, which they are not afraid to express, and they were outraged, screaming all the way to the new building until they were freed into their facilities. Few sounds are as hair-raising as an enraged, screaming barn owl, and because they were in cat carriers, rumors started that we were in the business of torturing cats. Honestly, if we had been torturing cats, would we have been carrying them around the campus, screaming, in boxes with big drawings of cats on the sides?

  The complicated job of maintaining so many owls made the prospect of the daily care of one owlet seem pretty simple. I would not have to deal with massive aviaries with water systems running under their floors, controlled climates, and daylight periods. I would need only a few items, like a good owl perch; owls cannot be kept in cages, as they tend to break their wings on them. My owl would live right with me in my bedroom—along with my collection of zebra finches—and I would just clean up after him every day.

  The night after I agreed to take the owl, I didn’t sleep well at all, thinking about the little soul whose life would become intertwined with mine. Taking him in would make it impossible for him ever to go back to the lab’s aviary with the other owls, or to any other facility, because he would bond with me. It would be up to me to give him a happy, comfortable life. He would be completely dependent upon me physically and emotionally, and if I were ever to abandon him, I could doom him to die from fear, confusion, and grief.

  I don’t even remember the drive to Caltech the next morning. I raced up to the office to say I could take the baby home with me. The owl was in an incubator, and I reached in for the naked, helpless little cre
ature. When I held him in the palm of my hand, I’d never felt so protective of anything in my life.

  Seeing me with the owl, Dr. Penfield smiled.

  “To that which you tame, you owe your life,” he said.

  3

  Owl Infancy

  I NAMED THE owlet Wesley. The name seemed perfect; cute enough for a baby owl yet wise and sophisticated for when he grew into a distinguished adult bird of prey. I had met him on Valentine’s Day, and eventually his adult face would be shaped just like a white heart, so Valentine became his middle name. I cupped the tiny owlet in my hands, held him against my cheek, and said, “I am your mother now.” I tucked him into the deep pocket of my lab coat, gently placed my hand around his frail body to keep him warm, and carried him that way from building to building as I gathered material to make a nest box, including receiving blankets I had brought from home to simulate a nest.

  Wesley went everywhere with me from then on. I even wrapped him in baby blankets and held him in my arms while grocery shopping, to keep him warm during that first cold winter. Occasionally someone would ask to see “the baby” and when I opened the blanket, would leap back shrieking, “What is that?! A dinosaur?” Apparently, the world is full of educated adults with mortgages and stock portfolios who think that people are walking around grocery stores with dinosaurs in their arms.

 
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