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Wesley the owl, p.3
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       Wesley the Owl, p.3

           Stacey O'Brien
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About one week old. Stacey O’Brien.

  At Caltech, the scientists had discovered that owls hunt by the sound of their prey—not with echolocation like bats, but from homing in on the tiny noises that the prey animals make, triangulating the mouse’s location with their ears. When we humans enter a forest, we primarily use our sight to navigate through the trees around us. By contrast, even though owls’ night vision is keen, their primary sense is auditory. Every barn owl has a “sound picture” of the cacophony of noises within the forest, including those made by animals, leaves blowing across the ground, and wind moving through the trees. A barn owl’s satellite dish–shaped face focuses and receives the sounds, directing them to its ears. Unlike human ears, which are in the same place on each side of the head, owls’ ears are irregularly placed. One ear is high up on the head and the other is lower, so that the owl can triangulate the location of a sound much more accurately than a human can. The owl brain’s large cortex is dedicated to auditory processing in much the way that ours has evolved for visual mapping, so it creates an auditory map of his world. As a result, a barn owl can accurately locate a mouse under three feet of snow by homing in on only the heartbeat, and can hear its footsteps from extremely far away.

  Knowing all this, I talked to Wesley constantly while his eyes were still shut so that, when his eyes opened, he would have already bonded to my voice. The same dynamic would occur in the nest, where the baby owl would hear his parents communicating with each other while he was in the egg. When Wesley opened his eyes for the first time, he stared right at me.

  “Hello, Wesley,” I said.

  “Screeeeech,” he hoarsely and softly replied, gazing deeply into my eyes.

  Like all barn owls, Wesley had two sets of eyelids: the nictitating membrane, which was sky blue, underneath his regular eyelid, which was pink and had perfect white lashes, which are actually tiny feathers. If I had been a real owl mother, this interaction would have been similar. In the nest, owl mothers twitter and chirp to their babies even while the owlets are still in the egg, shortly before they hatch. When the babies’ eyes open, they make eye contact with their parents and siblings as they chirrup to each other. The owlets are especially intense with eye contact when they are begging for food or lobbying for their mother’s attention. Wesley focused on me right away, twittering and chattering, looking me in the eyes and trying to communicate. I was astonished at the intensity and clarity of his focus on me.

  Wesley’s eyes were a deep, inscrutable black. Even when they first opened, they harbored a great mystery and held my gaze. Looking into his eyes was like looking into infinity, into something far away and cosmic. It was a profoundly spiritual experience—I never tired of it—and I was often startled by his eyes’ wildness and depth. Many other people noticed this quality throughout Wesley’s life and struggled to describe the strong conscious personality that they detected behind those eyes.

  As with all owls, Wesley’s eyes were fixed in their sockets, so the only way he could get depth perception was to move his head from side to side. He also had an extremely long, thin neck under all that white down, and could contort his head in dozens of different ways, including turning it a little more than 180 degrees—that disconcerting, spooky habit for which owls are known. In the wild, owls can sit comfortably with their heads facing backwards, watching for both predators and prey without so much as lifting a foot. When he was still white and downy, Wesley would sometimes freak me out when I’d realize that he was facing me over his back. Even though it’s completely natural, it seems unnatural, even supernatural, like a scene from The Exorcist. “Wesley,” I’d tell him, “don’t scare me like that!”

  Wesley observed the cardinal owl rule of never pooping in his nest. From the beginning, owls are very persnickety about hygiene, and Wesley scooted backwards until his bottom was as far as possible over the edge of the “nest” I’d made for him before pooping. When he first started to scoot around on the carpet, he would back up with his rear end high in the air and push backwards, trying to find the end of the rug so he could poop. He’d go quite a distance trying to find a suitable spot. Because he seemed to think of the carpet as nesting material, I realized that if I lay down a paper towel behind him, he would notice the change in texture and decide that he had reached the end of the “nest” and would poop there with a quiet air of dignified relief.

  When describing both the act of defecating and the substance of fecal matter itself, biologists prefer to use the scientific term “poop.” It’s both a noun and a verb. A popular field of biology called scatology is the study of scat, which is not to be confused with mere poop. Although technically they’re the same, we call it “scat” if we are studying it to learn something about the health and diet of an animal. When the animal has pooped on us or has ruined something with his pooping, we tend to use the term “shit,” as in, “Oh, man, he just shit down the back of my neck.” So if it’s on the ground, it’s poop. If it’s under your microscope, it’s scat. If it’s running down your neck, it’s shit.

  Wesley not only produced copious amounts of hot, slimy poop and a fair amount of shit, he also had very acidic saliva, which burned a little when he kissed me on the cheek. That saliva is the first step in an extraordinary system that allows owls to digest an entire mouse in an hour. It also fights bacteria that owls might encounter when eating meat that is slightly “off.” Once they’ve digested the mouse in their two-part stomach, they cough up a pellet of hair and bones with all the meat completely stripped off. Pellets are now in high demand for school and college biology classes because each one contains a complete rodent skeleton. Dissecting pellets introduces students to one of the ways biologists learn about the habits and diets of wild animals. I wish I had thought of this before throwing out thousands of Wesley’s pellets. Today, however, someone does sell the plentiful leftovers from owl aviaries everywhere. Acid bathed in the stomach, the pellets are actually pretty clean, unlike a cat’s hairballs, and they dry and harden quickly. As time goes by, they disintegrate, and if left in the nest they can become a soft, fluffy layer at the bottom of the nest. A lot of people mistake pellets for poop, but the owl’s digestive system sorts it all out very efficiently. Owl poop looks just like other bird poop.

  Unlike other owls, barn owls have a defense mechanism much like that of a skunk. When threatened or extremely stressed they shoot out, from their back ends, a greasy dark brown stuff that smells horrendous. It’s not from a special gland, as is a skunk’s spray, but it’s a great deterrent nonetheless. Wesley never did this to me, but throughout his life he would emit this substance shortly after a stressful incident. I usually had enough warning to catch the dark goo on a towel and race it out of the house and into a trash bag, lest the entire place have to be evacuated. Once in a while Wesley sprayed for no apparent reason, so it may also be a way to excrete toxins.

  Wendy’s baby was born soon after Wesley arrived, so they were about the same age. We joked that my baby, Wesley, was a lot more trouble than her baby, Annie, because Annie slept through the night, whereas Wesley didn’t until he was several months old. Though owls are nocturnal, Wesley eventually learned to sleep or keep himself quietly entertained throughout most of the night, trying to do exactly what I—his mother—did.

  Every night I put Wesley’s little nest box next to my pillow, secured on the bed so it wouldn’t fall. In the wild a baby owl is never separated from his mother, so I’d sleep with my hand draped over him in the box. In the nest, mothers and babies cuddle together and the mothers gently preen the babies with soft nibbling motions that are very comforting to the owlets, so I did this for Wesley with the tips of my fingers acting like a mother’s beak, and Wesley responded by nibbling my fingers and getting sleepy. He snuggled against my hand, sleeping on his stomach, tucking his head and legs under his tummy and becoming a little owl ball. We’d sleep peacefully for about two hours and then I would awaken to the most urgent sound—a cross between a screech and a hiss—which meant Wesley w
as hungry.

  After bringing Wesley home, I had set up a little feeding area at my desk with a towel for him to sit on. I’d get up, grab a baggy of mice out of the freezer, and defrost them in the microwave. Then I used scissors to cut the mice into owlet-bite-sized pieces. After setting Wesley on the towel, I’d support him with my left hand while feeding him with my right. I tried to emulate an owl parent by using tweezers to rub the little mouse chunks against the side of his beak. He’d grab the morsel sideways and wolf it down. Wesley would eat until he was so full that he would look nauseated and turn away his head in seeming disgust when I offered another piece. Eyes drooping shut, head held to the side, he’d then fall asleep against my hand. It was the beginning of a lifelong tradition of cuddling.

  Wesley was growing so quickly that every morning I could see that he was bigger than the night before. He needed mice to keep up with his growth. Lots of mice—six per day. But I had that under control. Caltech was providing me with large bags of neat and tidy prekilled, frozen mice. Mouse McNuggets.

  Then out of the blue there was a crisis—a statewide shortage of rodents. It was every predator and snake owner for himself, and the lab politely told me to go kill my own mice. Even though Wesley was a bird of prey, it had never occurred to me that I would actually have to kill animals to take care of him. I was horrified, but there was no other way. A mother will do anything for her child, and if her child can only eat mice and will die without mice, then a mother will kill mice. And so it began.

  At first I didn’t know how to kill mice and I wanted it to be as quick and painless as possible. I couldn’t use chemicals, so, on the advice of fellow scientists, I set myself up with a bag of mice in the backyard and cut off their heads with sharp scissors, which was so fast the mice never knew what hit them. But it was grisly, and afterward the backyard resembled a mass murder site.

  At about five weeks in his nest box. Stacey O’Brien.

  The carnage attracted quite a number of cats, which would walk into the yard single file and line up about two feet away, watching silently, their eyes fixed on my every movement, just the tips of their tails twitching. They would look solemnly at the jostling bag of live mice, then at me cutting off their heads, then at the twitching bodies on the grass. I would reach into the bag, grab another mouse, and do it at least thirty times over. The cats never approached the bag of mice or me. It was eerie. I felt like a high priestess performing a ritual sacrifice for worshipers.

  After going through all the mice in a bag, I’d shovel the mouse heads and bodies into a plastic bag and put them in the freezer. This became a problem, because when it was time for Wesley to eat, the blood had congealed the remains into frozen clumps, so I had to chisel pieces off one by one with an ice pick. It was messy work and I started having bad dreams.

  Eventually, I had to find another solution. Someone told me that if you held a mouse by its tail and swung your arm back like a baseball pitcher and slammed it into a hard surface flicking your wrist at the last moment, it would die instantly, painlessly, and unconscious of even being threatened. I would not need to try twice. So I began using this technique and it worked perfectly and painlessly for the mice. I, however, developed problems with my right wrist—carpal tunnel syndrome—from killing about 28,000 of them throughout Wesley’s lifetime (at more than a dollar a mouse).

  To find that many mice was no easy task. I staked out every pet store within a twenty-mile radius of my home. I had to have mice. Whole mice. Each organ, each bone, each hair on its body was crucial to Wesley’s nutrition. Some people have tried to feed owls strips of meat rolled in calcium, but without every bit of the mouse carcass, barn owls die a slow death of blood poisoning. They are perfectly adapted to eat whole mice. So I committed to memory the stores’ delivery schedules and traveled as far as I needed to get my quota.

  On one particular night, I went farther from home than usual to find about thirty mice at one store—I bought every mouse they had. They weren’t the usual white ones, but were brown like local field mice. Fortunately, color made no difference in nutritional value. I needed them all and needed to get them home fast. The pet store owner stuffed them all in a paper bag, which I put into the backseat, and got in my car. On my way home I noticed that I was low on gas and pulled into a full service station.

  As the attendant walked up to the car, I rolled down my window and said, “Good evening.” He nodded and then glanced into the backseat of the car, started, looked back at me, then again to the backseat. Oh, no, I thought.

  “Is anything wrong?” I asked the attendant.

  He didn’t answer, just slowly backed away from the car. But I knew what was wrong without looking behind me. The mice were loose.

  During transport, the mice often ate their way out of the paper bags. It wouldn’t occur to me until months after adopting Wesley to use an aquarium in the backseat to store mice. Sometimes I didn’t catch all of them, either. They’d get stuck behind the dashboard and eat through the wires to my radio or electronic signals, which ruined them. I could not afford expensive repairs. One mouse died in the dashboard beyond reach and rotted. For months I had to drive with my windows open to air out the odor.

  Another mouse fell out of the dash and into my open shoe one day. I screamed and briefly lost control of the car, then pulled to the shoulder, pushed open the door, and yanked off my shoe. Out fell a struggling, grease-covered white mouse that quickly escaped into the bushes.

  Back at the gas station, as the attendant continued to back away from the car, I asked, “Um, can you fill it with regular, please?”

  “Lady,” he sputtered, “your car is completely infested with field mice. I mean…the entire inside of your car is crawling with them!”

  I finally looked into the backseat, where thirty brown mice were running all over the seats, the floors, the handles, the windowsills…everywhere. It could’ve been a scene in Willard. I glanced up, but the attendant was gone.

  It would be another self-serve night.


  Barn Owl Toddler: Love Me, Love My Owl

  About two months old and curious about the camera. Wendy Francisco.

  I COMMUTED TO work every day and brought Wesley with me. It was sometimes difficult to do my job while carrying him around, so one day I tried leaving him with one of the researchers.

  “Hey Jergen, would you babysit my owl for a while?”

  Jergen looked into the box, saw the sleeping white ball, and said, “Sure thing, yah!”

  Wes was sound asleep when I left him, and I rushed through my work hoping he’d sleep long enough for me to get a lot done. But minutes later, I heard boots clumping across the big wooden floor in the owl barn and there was Jergen looking even paler than usual with a bright red blotch on each cheek.

  “You’ve got to get back up to the office,” he panted.

  “What’s wrong?” I cried, dropping everything. “Is he hurt?”

  “I don’t know, I don’t know, just go up,” he said.

  With my heart thundering in my chest I raced back up to the offices, taking the stairs two at a time. As I got to the third floor I could hear a horrible commotion of screeches. I ran into the room, and there was Wesley’s little white head bobbing up and down over the top of his nesting box. He was screaming so loudly that he had cleared out the room.

  When I got to his box he just lowered his eyelids in greeting and gave a soft, sweet little twitter. All was well with the world now that I was with him again.

  “You can’t leave him up here anymore,” Jergen said. “We’ll never get anything done.”

  In the wild, there is no such thing as a babysitter. It’s the Way of the Owl.

  After this scare, I took Wesley absolutely everywhere with me and did not leave him alone again until he was three months old, at which age he would have been starting to leave the nest. But until that time, I carried him in his box into every room as I worked. He stayed in his box by my side while I was feeding other animals and
caring for them and whenever I was in the lab working with microscopes and other instruments.

  LIFE WAS MUCH easier at home because I could give almost all my time and attention to Wesley. And Wesley observed me carefully. Normally he would have taken all of his cues from his mother. Now he was taking all of his cues from me. So when he saw me petting Courtney, Wendy’s golden retriever, Wesley was unafraid and curious. Being a baby meant he didn’t yet know his wildness and was open to making friends with any animal that came along. If his mother thought someone was okay, so did he. Courtney had been curious about Wesley for quite a while, so I decided to let them meet. Wendy supervised Courtney, and I held Wesley. They touched nose to beak and neither of them reacted. I set Wes on the ground and Courtney sniffed him over, then lay down next to Wesley as if he were her puppy. From then on, Wes felt right at home sitting between her front paws, and they would just hang out together.

  With Courtney the dog. Stacey O’Brien.

  Whenever I took care of Wendy’s daughter, Annie, who was born shortly after Wesley came home with me, I’d always involve Wesley, too. I could also leave Wesley in his nesting box next to my pillow in the bedroom, where he was used to sleeping, while I ate dinner with Wendy and her family. But the first three months seemed much longer than they really were because toting a fragile baby owl around was complicated and inconvenient.

  One night when I was home with Wes, who was about a month old, the phone rang. I answered, and a soft, low voice said, “Hello, Stacey?” I went weak in the knees. The guy I had hoped for and schemed over, prayed for and cried over, Paul, was asking me out on a date. He was gorgeous, a musician, blond like me, short like me, into music like me. I had been pretty sure for a long time that Paul would make the perfect husband—it was just a matter of him realizing it. Did I mention he was gorgeous?

  “I would love to,” I sputtered.

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