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Wesley the owl, p.4
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       Wesley the Owl, p.4

           Stacey O'Brien
 
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  But then with a shock I remembered the Way of the Owl—and the “no babysitter” rule. I would have to bring Wesley with me. I could just imagine what would happen if he started screaming in a fancy restaurant. I had to say something so I blurted out, “Um, I’m raising a baby owl and I can’t leave him. Can I bring him with me in his little nest box with his little bowl of food? He eats mice, uh, but it’s okay because they’re already cut up.” I was dying a thousand deaths. He hesitated for a moment then said, “Sure, no problem.” We set up a date for two weeks later and hung up. I was thrilled.

  Wesley was growing quickly. As he grew, he became more active, all legs and talons, pulling himself out of his blankets and trying to climb all over me. One night, as I was feeding him his cut-up mice, he suddenly lurched to his feet for the first time. He was six weeks old; he seemed surprised to be so tall and looked to me for an explanation. “Wesley! You’re standing up all by yourself!” I told him. He seemed reassured.

  Wesley at five weeks old, with Stacey. Wendy Francisco.

  At about seven weeks, standing next to a standard paper towel roll so you can see how big he is. Stacey O’Brien.

  Shortly afterward, Wesley took his first step—and with that step everything changed. He was like a human toddler, bounding around getting into everything in the bedroom. How was I going to protect an owl toddler? Fortunately, Caltech had loaned me a perch designed specifically for owls at this transitional stage. It was essentially a low mock tree stump nailed firmly to a 4-by-4-foot platform that sat on the floor. Wesley would be tethered to the stump with a leg jess. Next to his new perching post, I set his old nest box on its side, where he continued to sleep and groom himself.

  Now that Wesley was mobile, I needed to introduce him to the leg jess and figure out how to leash him to the perching post, since I couldn’t corral him twenty-four hours a day. Most falconers put a leather jess on both legs of their bird, which they attach to a leash whenever taking the raptor outside. I modified this design and put a very soft leather jess on only one ankle—so Wesley would get the idea but wouldn’t have his legs tied together when on his leash. The leash was attached to the top of the perch-stump. He seemed to enjoy the new setup and the freedom it gave him to jump down and walk around on the floor. I leashed him whenever I couldn’t be there to supervise him, as he didn’t know what was dangerous and what was okay to play on, and I didn’t know what kind of trouble he could get into without my watching him. At this age, the babies would still be with their parents in the wild, learning to do what their parents did. They would be climbing out of the nest and sitting on tree branches, but still very dependent on Mom and Dad for guidance and food.

  Once Wesley could walk confidently, he waddled behind me from room to room. Off his leash, he followed me everywhere and watched everything I did. And everywhere he went, he hurried. He’d put his wings up as if flying, although it looked as if he were playing “airplane.” He would bring each foot way up to his chest, then shoot that foot out as far as it would go, throwing his weight forward onto it, while pulling the other foot all the way up to his chest to do the same. The result was a hilarious galumphing gait that he kept for the rest of his life. The sincerity in his face made the whole thing seem even more ridiculous, and the sight of him rushing along like this would make Wendy and me giggle.

  Even adult owls look funny when they run on the ground. Barn owls don’t usually walk on the ground in the wild, as they are only there long enough to grab their prey, so their feet are specialized for holding on to a branch with the long talons curled below. On the ground, the claws push their long toes up in an awkward way, and the extra pads on their feet seem to interfere with walking easily on flat surfaces. They don’t do a sophisticated little run like shorebirds or hop sensibly along the ground like sparrows. Barn owls tend to make a dramatic mess of it. This fits their personalities. Nothing is simple or straightforward. It’s got to be complicated, messy, urgent, and goofy-looking, in spite of the fact that owls take themselves very seriously.

  On the morning that Wesley followed me from the bedroom into the living room for the first time, I sat down on the carpet and he scrambled to the safety of my lap, overwhelmed by this big new room. But in minutes curiosity overtook him, and he hopped down and began to explore. Wendy ran to get the camera. When she zoomed in on his face, Wesley stopped, cocked his head heavily to one side and regarded the camera with open curiosity. Wendy snapped photo after photo. Wesley stared right into the lens with his head bobbing up and down, back and forth, turning one way and then the other, the perfect high-fashion owl model. Wendy and I laughed so hard, it’s a wonder any of those photos were in focus.

  Almost three months old, using adolescent, or toddler, perch. Stacey O’Brien.

  Despite his rapid growth, at five weeks Wesley still didn’t look like an owl. White down covered his entire body, including his wing stubs and legs. He looked misshapen and sort of lumpy. Around his bottom and hips there was a funny-looking mass of poofy white down feathers that he would retain into adulthood. I called these his “bloomers,” which is what they looked like. Owl bloomers have an important purpose in the wild. Their ultra softness efficiently traps the warm air against the body, providing extra warmth and fluff when the owl pulls his foot up to sleep during cold weather.

  At six weeks, Wesley’s large head still overwhelmed his little body. His feet looked entirely reptilian and scaly. And they were huge compared to the rest of him, with talons sharp as razors. At this stage in the wild, baby barn owls flap their growing wings hard and climb tree trunks by hooking their talons into the bark and powering with leg and wing muscles straight up the side. It’s a great preflight exercise. Unfortunately, Wesley saw me as his personal tree. His beak and talons, meant to kill and rip flesh, really hurt. I started wearing thick jeans at all times, even to bed.

  At my mother’s house one day, she watched Wesley climbing all over my bare arms.

  “Don’t his tentacles hurt your skin, dear?” she asked.

  “They’re not tentacles, Mom,” I informed her.

  “Oh, I mean, don’t his testicles hurt your skin?”

  “I think you mean talons, Mom. They’re called talons.”

  She shook her head and questioned how I’d ever find a husband with bird scratches all over me. This comment stirred unease about my upcoming date with Paul. While biologists are proud of their scars and love to trade what’s-the-weirdest-thing-you’ve-been-bitten-by stories, Paul was a nonbiologist.

  My arms were covered with long razor-thin scratches from Wesley’s talons, but I also had some unique marks from other animals, including gouges from large owls at Caltech. But my coolest scar by far was on my right wrist from a three-foot-long benthic worm with a six-inch retractable jaw. (Likely the inspiration for the jaw that shot out from the monster’s throat in the film Alien. It looks exactly the same.) Benthic is the term for the layer of sediment at the bottom of the ocean, where these worms live. Their jaws shoot up from the mud and snag prey as it scuttles above them. I was on a seagoing vessel studying the effects of the changing currents on benthic life (and also, concurrently, the zooplankton that floats on the ocean’s surface). We had netted a benthic worm that suddenly clamped on to my wrist and wouldn’t let go. I wanted to jump around the boat and scream, “Get it off! Get it off!” but with all those scientists around, that would have been so uncool. So I froze and choked out, “Can somebody help me detach this thing?” Finally we were able to pry the jaws open and throw it back into the sea, but it took a chunk of my flesh with it. Nonetheless, I was triumphant. I now had the best “bitten by” story of all.

  Yet I wondered whether a benthic worm scar would be an asset on a date with a musician.

  Wesley and I were developing a nighttime ritual. As I washed my face and brushed my teeth in the bathroom, Wesley stood on the counter. He watched while I turned on the faucet, ran the toothbrush under the water, and brought it to my mouth. It wasn’t long before he particip
ated in the routine by grabbing the toothbrush and then parading around the sink with it in his beak. I would take the handle and gently try to pull it out of his mouth, resulting in a slow tug-of-war with me saying, “Wesley, give it back. It’s mine, Wesley, now, give it back,” to which Wesley responded by pushing his heels forward and pulling with all his might, screeching all the while until I would have to give in. “Okay, you win” and I’d carefully relinquish my grip. Finally, I figured out that all I had to do was take one of “his” and pretend to use it, let him grab it, then use a new one in peace. The moment he won this pitched battle, he’d lose interest in the toothbrush and throw it over the side of the counter, watching it fall with the kind of fascination babies in high chairs display after throwing their sippy cups.

  One night Wesley poked his head under the running water. The feel of it surprised him and he jerked back, shook his head, and stared up at me as if asking, “What just happened?” Then he tried it again. Wesley had discovered water. He loved it. In fact, he became obsessed with water, trying to jump into the sink whenever I turned on the faucet. So I found an old dog dish, filled it up for him, and set it on the counter. From then on, Wesley imitated my bedtime routine using his own “sink,” swishing his face in the water while I was washing mine, and drinking while I brushed my teeth. This was surprising behavior, because it was well known that owls did not go near water, let alone wash their faces and drink. At that time, as far as we knew, no naturalist had ever reported observing an owl showing any interest in water, ever. Owls get all the fluids they need from eating mice. Wesley had not read the literature, however, and his doggie dish was a fixture in our lives from then on. The group at Caltech wanted to see this behavior for themselves, so I brought his doggie dish to work and they all watched him play, drink, and splash around in the water.

  Wesley had begun to display a fascinating variety of facial expressions and body movements. They seemed to reveal a great complexity of thought and awareness. I talked to Wesley the same way Wendy talked to her infant daughter, Annie, using words and body language simply and consistently. I was reasonably certain that he would learn to understand me on some level, but had no idea to what degree. I’d use the same words for specific actions, like “Wesley, do you want some mice?” whenever he ate, or “Wesley, go to sleep,” when I went to bed. And whenever he saw something he thought looked interesting, which was nearly everything, I would name it out loud. Then he’d race toward the object in his galumphing gait, wings out like an airplane, with me running behind saying, “Wait! Not for owls, not for owls!”

  THE NIGHT OF the big date finally arrived. I stood at Paul’s front porch with the little third wheel asleep in a box tucked under my scratched arms. Paul opened his front door with a smile, ushered us in, and then peered down at Wesley.

  “That’s an owl?”

  Wesley was just waking up from his nap.

  “Well, yes, it’s a baby owl,” I said.

  Paul bent his head over the box for a second look.

  “And are those…” he exclaimed with widening eyes, “…cut-up mice??”

  “It’s what he eats,” I offered.

  Paul turned pale and backed away.

  “That is gross. That is really gross.”

  There was no going out to a restaurant. Paul ordered in a pizza and ate it perched tensely on the armchair away from the couch where I sat with Wesley. He nervously eyed the box as if Wesley or the cut-up mice were going to come flying out and attach themselves to his head. My visions of going down the aisle to “She Blinded Me with Science” faded quickly. I found myself wishing we were back at home, just Wesley and me, getting ready for bed.

  Finally, Paul popped in a video and settled back in his chair. Oh, good, he’s finally relaxing, I thought. Then I heard snoring. And it wasn’t Wesley. Mom had been right. I hate admitting that.

  I slipped out of Paul’s house with Wesley, strapped his box into the passenger seat with the seat belt, and started the car. A blanket of sadness descended. I knew Paul would never call again. I’d been so sure he was “the one.” What a bummer. Oh well, maybe there was something to be said for having Wesley as sort of a litmus test for guys. Love me, love my owl, I thought. I certainly couldn’t be with a guy who didn’t have some interest in animals. Paul seemed to have none. Wesley’s eyes searched my face as if trying to decipher a work of art. Perhaps my little owlet had just prevented me from making a big mistake.

  I pulled into the long circular driveway at Wendy’s house. As I walked up the driveway, her flock of geese announced my arrival. The horses nickered, and a goat bleated. I could hear the chickens cackling to each other. The scent of hay was on the breeze.

  It was a relief to be home with Wes.

  We got ready for bed and had our nightly cuddle. Wesley lay on his tummy across my left arm, nestled against my stomach, head in my hand with his legs hanging over the side of my arm. With my right hand I rubbed him on the bridge of his nose, which I knew he loved, because he closed the disks of his face like a little taco over each eye, opening up the area over his nose for rubbing. With his “cuddle face,” he fluffed the feathers immediately around his nose, so that most of his beak was hidden and all I could see was a little bit of the pink tip.

  One of my tears hit the feathers on his back. “I’m all right, Wes.” I told him, “I wouldn’t be happy with a man who doesn’t understand animals anyway.”

  Actually, Paul did call a few times over the next year or so. He’d always eventually ask, “Do you still have that owl?” He said “owl” as if he were asking, “Do you still have that human head hidden under the bed?” or something equally horrible. “Oh, yes!” I’d say and describe Wesley’s antics to him. He’d sigh deeply and ask, “How long do they live in captivity?” I’d always answer, “Fifteen years or more.” Then he’d say “Okay,” and quickly end the conversation.

  A few years later he got married.

  5

  Flying Lessons

  Wesley pounced on everything from pillows to items on the floor. Stacey O’Brien.

  ONE DAY WHEN he was nearing seven weeks old, Wesley drew his wings way up over his head, leaned forward, and had a good long stretch. It was then that I saw the beginnings of pinfeathers on his wings. Pinfeather is a catchall term for any new feather coming in. Although they’re called pinfeathers, they are actually waxlike tubes made of keratin, the same stuff our hair and fingernails are made of, but they are alive, have blood and nerves, and are extremely sensitive. Inside each living tube, an adult feather is being formed. When the feather is ready to meet the world, the blood and nerves recede and a white waxy keratin sheath remains.

  One of my favorite activities once Wes started growing pin-feathers was to groom him. As he lay on my left arm against my stomach, I’d gently pinch the white waxy part with my right hand, pulling it off carefully, to watch a perfect new feather emerge, fully formed. In essence, I was grooming him just as mother owls groom their babies and mated pairs groom each other. The adults can groom themselves, so they seem to be doing it to bond and show affection. Birds in general love to have their pinfeathers groomed, and we would do this for hours for the rest of his life, as even adult birds are constantly growing new feathers, to replace old, worn-out ones. It was thrilling to watch the gradual emergence of Wesley’s beautiful golden wings.

  Spring was on the way. During this time of year I would occasionally go out to forests, malls, and countrysides to watch for wild owls. One moonlit night, I saw a barn owl emerge from his cubbyhole on the roof of a shopping mall. He flew several hundred feet up into the air before finally free-falling sideways. He did loop-de-loops and figure eights, then flew in circles ascending higher and higher until he was just a speck in the sky. He drew in his wings and dive-bombed straight toward the ground gathering great speed, pulling up only at the last second. I had never seen such a wild display of joy and prowess. I hadn’t even known it was possible for an owl to fly like that, much less do so seemingly ju
st for the thrill of it.

  This owl was an adolescent, meaning he was less than three years old and, thus, still without a mate. Although most literature says that barn owls mature sexually at one year old, I disagree. Wesley did not reach maturity until he was three and a half years old. It was my understanding that we had made the same observation at Caltech. I had developed an intuition about the age of barn owls, based on my work with them at the lab, and found that the younger, unattached ones seemed to have slicker-looking feathers—they all looked brand-new. These owls spent their time on their own, not yet calling for a mate since they weren’t sexually mature. Older, unattached owls have an air of depression about them and a scruffier mantle of feathers, compared to the youngsters. Maybe this one was getting ready to impress the ladies. Or maybe it just felt fantastic to fly with such abandon. Watching him took my breath away. His beauty and power humbled me and also made me a bit sad for Wesley, who would never be able to experience such flying.

  By two months, Wesley had almost completely lost his white baby down feathers, which I carefully saved in a little box, because they were as precious to me as a baby’s first curls. His adult down, insulating him under his visible feathers, would be a deep gray, not white. As he grew more and more long flight feathers, he’d start trying to fly soon.

  When I adopted Wesley, I was also keeping zebra finches as pets and had had seventeen birds in twelve cages in my bedroom. I wasn’t sure how well this was going to work once Wesley could really fly, since barn owls will eat small birds (up to about 3 percent of their diet) to supplement their normal fare of mice. For the first few months, I put curtains on their cages and kept them up high where Wesley couldn’t get at them. I was optimistic that, since he was raised with them, he might leave them alone, but just in case, I started telling people that I might need new homes for my birds soon.

 
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