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Wesley the owl, p.6
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       Wesley the Owl, p.6

           Stacey O'Brien
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  Because hovering is complex, it takes an owl a while to figure it out. As Wesley tried it, he would shoot forward or fall down too fast as he tried to balance all these complexities in his mind and teach his muscles to respond. The more he worked on his flying, the more amazing it seemed that any young bird could master it so quickly.

  I’ve had the privilege of “flying” a military flight simulator and found that I did quite well with the SR-71, which is huge, ungainly, and built for long, stable flights that are so high in altitude that they are almost in orbit. The SR-71 was our best spy plane during the Cold War. I probably couldn’t have crashed it if I had tried. But when I switched to an agile fighter jet with short wings, I could barely get “airborne” without spinning out and slamming into the ground. I never did get it stabilized, which brought home the difference between long and short wings.

  Although he made a lot of noise crashing into objects, Wesley’s actual flight was completely silent. Owls are the only birds that fly without making any sound. Unlike other birds, they have extremely soft flight feathers with serrated edges that mute the sound of their wings so that no noise interferes with hearing their prey. This silent flight also enables them to sneak up on their prey. Wesley’s feathers were so soft that I could only feel them properly by touching them to my lips—my fingers just weren’t sensitive enough. The top of the flight feather is also velvety so that even the surface of the wing creates no sound. Secondary feathers are extremely poofy, almost like very large down feathers. I could take any one of Wesley’s feathers and swish it through the air and it would not make the slightest sound.

  Few things are as startling as an owl making a surprise landing on the top of your head. Because his flight was so quiet, the only way I could anticipate this was to listen for Wesley’s take-off. Usually he relaxed on one foot and then if he decided to fly, he’d hit the other foot on whatever surface he stood before taking off. After many episodes of tangled hair and talons, I learned to listen for that foot-slapping sound. I’d brace for impact and stand still because if he were going to land on my head, I preferred it to be a good landing, not a big mess. Wesley was quite gentle if he didn’t lose his footing, because he knew it was me he was landing on.

  Other aspects of owls’ feathering are unique to them. Most birds have a white powdery substance all over their bodies, particularly pronounced in parrots and their relatives. Some birds (herons and pigeons) have a special type of feather that never molts, called a “powder down feather,” which produces a powder that they spread all over while preening, but even those that don’t have a special feather produce a powder that’s quite obvious. Barn owls have none. By contrast, Wendy’s cockatoo, Omar, was so powdery that every time he shook his feathers, a cloud appeared, and when we groomed him, our fingers would get a layer of white dust on them. When I groomed Wesley, however, my fingers stayed completely clean.

  Wesley grooming himself. Stacey O’Brien.

  Almost all other birds also produce oil in a gland (the uropygial gland) located at the base of their tails, which they preen over their feathers, conditioning them to make them last longer. Wesley would religiously pinch this vestigial oil gland with his beak out of some old instinct, even though these glands don’t produce oil in barn owls. Then he would act as if he were spreading the nonexistent oil all over his feathers.

  Since barn owls can’t oil their feathers, they are at a terrible disadvantage because they’re not waterproofed like other birds. They get soaking wet quite easily and can become so weighed down by their soggy feathers that they can’t fly. If an owl isn’t able to dry off quickly, it can shiver with cold and die. Perhaps this is why they evolved to live in hollow trees and others’ burrows. Wet down is a miserable, heavy substance, as anyone who has had to camp with a wet down sleeping bag can attest.

  At about a year old, Wesley plays in the sink. Stacey O’Brien.

  WESLEY WAS BECOMING more and more active at night. He started pulling his perch closer to the bed, tugging at it laboriously and patiently, then climbing my bedcovers in an attempt to get me to play. And of course it worked, since I had to get up anyway to move the perch back. I’d release him from his leash and run my feet under the covers, making sure there were many layers of blankets between my feet and him, and he’d take chase, pouncing on them. During the day if I took a nap, I’d let him stay off his perch since he was usually sleepy and would join my nap time. He would find an elevated place in the room to sleep—a pile of books on the desk or the top of one of the finch cages—but sometimes he’d rest on my shoulder or the side of my head. One time, though, I awoke to find him asleep on the side of my head with his foot positioned so that one long talon curved down into my ear canal, almost touching my eardrum. I didn’t dare move my head, but I reached up and, with my finger, slowly pulled the talon out of my ear. Then and there I decided that Wesley needed his own pillow where he had to sleep when I was napping. He took to the pillow like he’d had it forever, and from then on he knew that it was his place on my bed.

  Wesley had been expressive from the day he opened his eyes, but now that he was literally “leaving the nest” at three months, he was becoming increasingly opinionated and emotionally invested in everything that went on around him. He also began to withdraw from everyone in the household except me, as an owl would do in the wild when he separated from his parents and began to seek a mate. Wendy could no longer just walk up to Wesley and pet him casually: he would back away and hiss or even threaten her with lunges and hisses. “I guess my days of snuggling little Wesley are over,” Wendy said one afternoon. “Do you think he’ll let me touch him?” I said she should at least try, and I held on to Wesley, who was already tethered, as she carefully and slowly approached him, speaking softly in a reassuring tone. “There, little guy. So handsome. Little Wesley, you’re okay…” and Wesley held still and allowed her to pet him. For the rest of his life he would allow her to pet him if she approached him in this careful, gentle way, as long as I was holding on to him so that he wouldn’t attack. Perhaps it reassured him that he was under my wing in a sense.

  Sitting on top of a covered finch cage as a young adult. Stacey O’Brien.

  Wesley quickly sorted out who he would allow to do this and who he would absolutely not tolerate—men, dogs, and people he didn’t know as a baby (with a few exceptions). Poor Courtney the dog couldn’t figure out why her little friend didn’t like her anymore, but she respected Wesley’s threats and stopped trying to come into the room. Wesley always seemed to prefer my mother and sister, who resemble me in voice and looks, and he would sometimes decide that he liked someone for reasons that I couldn’t fathom, other than the fact that they had a deep affinity for animals, were very patient and soft in their movements and voice, and they just loved him dearly. One woman who became his babysitter years later would sit by the door and read books to him. He would always have a special trust for Wendy, and later, for my dear friend Cáit Reed, who also sounds and looks a little bit like me, and also has a deep understanding of animals. As long as people stayed next to the door, he was fine. He might threaten them, but he didn’t go after them. If he wasn’t tethered and could go to a high place where he felt safe, he would allow people to come into the room if I was with them, without attacking. But he would not let them come close to him and would fly away as soon as they started toward him, landing on the other side of the room. I never let anyone test his limits beyond that. The days of Wesley the trusting baby were over. He was now a young teen.

  Yet, like many adolescents, Wesley still had embarrassing moments as he perfected his flying. His landings weren’t so hot, and he still slid across my desk and whacked into the wall fairly regularly, but with each day of practice, the humiliation of learning how to fly soon gave way to the sheer delights of knowing how to fly. And Wesley would come to express his joy in flying in many different ways.


  Attack Kitten on Wings

  Wesley at about a year old, “killing
” a film canister. Stacey O’Brien.

  MY BEDROOM AT Wendy’s was dimly lit, but otherwise looked pretty much like any other bedroom full of stuffed animals. One particular day, however, one of the seemingly stuffed animals had a menacing glint in its eyes. It was Wesley and he was crouching motionless, his attention fixed on a small object in front of him. Suddenly, his head started gyrating wildly from side to side, round and round and upside down. In an instant, he shot into the air and pounced on his newfound prey—a hair scrunchee—with all his wild might. He pounced again and again, flying into the air and slamming back onto it with clenched talons, killing it over and over again.

  Finally satisfied that the hair scrunchee was thoroughly dead, he turned to the next victim, an unfortunate empty film canister. Wesley flew around the room to gain speed and hit the canister at full power. Wham. Wesley pounced again. Whack. He held down the canister with his talons and gave it a bite that would have severed its spine, if it had had one. Then he looked at me for the first time and let out his new victory cry—“Deedle deedle deedle DEET DEET DEET DEET deedle deedle dee!” I murmured approval and he took a victory lap. Soon he would be ready for his first live mouse.

  OWLS HAVE NO pack, flock, or herd, so they are absolute loners except for their mate and offspring. Because of this inborn inclination, Wesley was strengthening his bond with me and had started to consider every other life form an enemy combatant. If anyone else even looked into the room, he had recently begun to exhibit a strange display, which I called his “owl no-nos,” because it looked as if he were shaking his head no.

  My first experience with owl no-nos occurred in the wild owl section at Caltech, when I came upon a fledgling barn owl standing on the floor of an aviary, hunched over as if injured, rubbing his beak on the ground. I immediately went to his rescue, but he did not respond. If anything, the beak rubbing became even more pronounced. Maybe he was choking. I got down on my hands and knees and put my face close to his to figure out what was wrong. I stayed in that position for quite a while and he never changed his behavior or acknowledged my presence. I thought he must really be in trouble and ran up to Dr. Penfield’s office, gasping that we had an owl down.

  “Stay calm,” he said, “and describe the exact behavior to me.”

  “Oh, Dr. Penfield, he’s all hunched over and his beak is almost touching the floor and he’s rocking his head back and forth exactly as if he’s saying ‘No, no, no.’ I went in and checked—”

  “You went in?”

  “Yes and I got down on the floor with him to see what’s wrong and put my face right up to his beak and couldn’t see anything—”

  “You what?” He leapt up from his chair. “That’s the last threat before ripping your face off, didn’t you know that? Stacey, you are lucky to have your eyes. That owl was trying to tell you that he was going to try to kill you.”

  I suddenly felt weak all over. What a close call.

  “Well, that seems like a stupid threat display,” I mumbled, embarrassed at my ignorance. “The owl can’t even see the object of his concern, so how could he be threatening it? And who on earth could possibly interpret anything that ridiculous-looking to be a threat?”

  Dr. Penfield just blinked.

  It’s not clear if other animals recognize this behavior as a threat. To say the least, it’s downright strange, which might be enough to scare off another animal; but perhaps it’s understood only among owls. It seems to be specific to barn owls, a signature move of theirs, though all owls rotate their wings forward to make themselves look larger, puff their feathers up, and sway from side to side, swinging their heads back and forth as they look at their enemy, and hiss and clack their beaks. All this occurs before barn owls go into the no-nos, which is their final warning. They look a lot like the monster in the Alien movies when it would hunch itself and sway menacingly. Hissing seems to be a universally understood threat among all animals, and most animals puff themselves up in some manner when threatened. Think of swans and cats, who puff up and hiss. But the fact that barn owls don’t make eye contact during the actual no-nos makes it seem a ridiculous threat display until you realize that their primary source of information comes from their ears. They are more likely to respond to the sound of an enemy tensing its muscles and shifting to pounce than they are to rely on visual cues like we would. It’s very difficult for us to think the way a barn owl does, so his ways can seem pretty ridiculous—but they make sense to him, which is all that matters.

  NOW THAT WESLEY was more mature and tended to clam up with anyone else, I was the only one who could watch his playful antics. I tried to describe his entertaining flying and daredevil maneuvers to my friends, but they didn’t quite believe me. One friend, Kurt, begged me to find a way to hide him so that he could see Wesley play. I finally gave in to his pleas, figuring that if I were to carefully ensconce Kurt in my bed under lots of blankets and he were to keep perfectly still, just like a field biologist observing wild animals from a blind, then we could bring Wesley into the room and Kurt could watch him do his thing. Kurt agreed to my brilliant plan, saying, “If it works with me, then you can do this for anyone else who wants to see him play.”

  I put Wesley in the bathroom by himself while Kurt quietly sneaked into my bedroom. We piled blankets on top of him and fashioned a little peephole.

  “Okay,” I said, “whatever you do, don’t move or make any sounds. And remember, patience is the key! He will start to play and if you can’t see something, don’t move, just wait until he comes back into view, okay?”

  A huge Norwegian guy from South Dakota who could carry a refrigerator down a flight of stairs all by himself, Kurt suddenly looked worried.

  “What do I do if something happens?” he asked.

  “What could happen?” I said impatiently. “I’ll come back in about twenty minutes. If he isn’t playing, we’ll try again another time.”

  Once Kurt was comfortable I said, “Okay, now be completely silent. I’m going to go get him.”

  “Okay,” he whispered.

  I placed Wesley inside the door of my bedroom and closed it like I always did when I let him fly around and play by himself. I didn’t stay in the room because I thought that if he noticed someone breathing under the covers, he would think it was me, hopefully forgetting that I had left the room. I wandered off into the house and hung out with Wendy and Annie for a while, losing track of the time, so it was more like forty-five minutes later when I decided to check on how things were going. I stood at the door hoping to hear the sounds of Wes playing. I didn’t hear a thing. It was dead silent.

  I opened the door to see Wesley standing on the bed with his face less than an inch from the peephole, his body crouched, wings flung all the way out and rotated forward in the classic owl threat posture. He was rocking from side to side doing his no-nos, and occasionally lunging with a loud hissing snap of his beak.

  From under the covers I heard a tiny voice, “Help me…”

  “What are you doing, Wesley?” I said, and picked him up and leashed him to his perch. Kurt then threw the covers back. He was sweating and pale, almost green.

  “Where were you?” he demanded.

  “Uh…well, I just thought you’d be okay. When did he discover you?”

  “When? When? The second you shut the door, that’s when! He came straight at me and has been threatening my eye for the last two hours!”

  “Kurt,” I said, “It’s only been about forty-five minutes.”

  “Forty-five minutes? You try having an owl snapping at your eye for forty-five minutes sometime!”

  I held back my laughter. “I’m sorry, Kurt. I was sure it would work out. At least we tried.”

  I should have known that Wesley would figure out that the person under my blankets wasn’t me. I had underestimated his intelligence by a long shot. After all, if owls can hear a mouse’s heartbeat, Wesley could have heard the heart of a big guy like Kurt and recognized it as different from my own.

p; Kurt made a long circle around Wesley’s perch on his way back to the door and scooted out as Wes flung himself forward at him with one last snap of his beak.

  BECAUSE WESLEY’S FLYING had improved, he needed an adult perch. I bought a parrot perch and modified it so that it was about four and a half feet tall, with a wooden dowel across the top for Wesley to stand on and a round platform below about three feet in diameter. In the center of the dowel I added a leather attachment for his leash, which turned freely so that nothing would get tangled, and I used strips of leather and chicken wire to block the area below the dowel so that Wesley wouldn’t wind his leash around it and get pinned. I covered the platform with towels and taped them into place. The nesting box was history now. Wesley developed an entirely new play routine on his perch.

  About eight years old on his adult perch, Wesley enjoys a mouse dinner, preparing to swallow it headfirst. Stacey O’Brien.

  Late one night, 3:00 a.m. to be exact, I should have been sleeping, but Wesley was up and it was far more entertaining to watch him play. He knew the exact limits of his leash and flew in a circle just within that perimeter, playing “helicopter,” then flinging himself at the perch, power punching it by throwing his legs forward in an arc so that all the muscles of his chest, legs, and feet were fully engaged when he hit the dowel. Pow! What a move! I had added that resounding smack to my subconscious list of sounds that meant all was well in our world. Then he jumped off the dowel and onto the platform, with a hollow pom!

  Then quite deliberately he dived over the side of the platform and hung there dangling on his jess like a huge golden bat. Enjoying the view upside down, he looked over the room from that perspective. The first time he did this I had tried to help him right himself, but he was so irritated that I did not intervene again. Once he tired of this view, he reached up, grabbed the towels with his talons, and powered himself back up onto the platform using his abdominal muscles, like a gymnast pulling himself up onto a bar. He would do this for the rest of his life just for fun, it seemed. I’d walk into a room and there he’d be, hanging upside down, looking around calmly. I sometimes did lift him back up to the perch just to make sure he was okay, which he always was. The only time I’ve known of an owl doing this in the wild was from a curious picture of a spotted owl hanging from a branch with the same expression of enjoyment that Wesley had. The person who took the picture said the owl wasn’t stuck and easily righted itself when it got tired of hanging that way. Ravens and crows do this also, seemingly for fun.

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