Wesley the Owl, p.7Stacey O'Brien
Television documentaries about animals all echo that they play in their youth because it’s necessary for them to learn the skills they need to survive—building muscle, coordination, fighting, and hunting moves. But this conventional wisdom doesn’t begin to explain the full picture. Some species never seem to play at all, yet they still survive in the wild. On Wendy’s little farm, we had chickens, geese, cockatiels, and a cockatoo, among other animals, and we observed them closely at every stage of life. Annie’s pet chicken Herkomer never appeared to play, although she was as tame as an animal could be. Other species of birds play all their lives, like birds of the parrot family—and owls—long after they’ve learned adult skills. Wendy once knew a woman who kept a screech owl that also played like a kitten with wings all of its life, well into old age.
I actually don’t think play is related only to predation, as prey animals such as rats, mice, ground squirrels, and goats play as adults, and some predators such as owls, otters, cats, and dogs also play as adults. At a wildlife refuge where I volunteered, grown Bengal tigers played for hours in their pool. One of them would carry his favorite red ball everywhere, throwing it ahead and pouncing on it, tossing it into the water then jumping in after it, pushing it all over the surface with his nose. Tiring of that, he’d take it out of the pool and roll on his back, batting the ball into the air like a kitten, using all four paws to keep it in place. His enclosure mates would join in the fun, rolling around and growling like Harley-Davidsons revving their engines.
So what makes one type of animal playful whereas another isn’t? Or are they all playful, but we are unable to recognize it when some species do play? Clearly it’s not simply that animals play just to learn certain skills. There needs to be more scientific study on why animals play or don’t play without the cultural bias that many western scientists seem to have against ascribing “fun” or “joy” to animals for fear of seeming to anthropomorphize them.
Wesley was as playful at age thirteen as he was when he was a year old. Of course, I could say that he learned a certain behavior in order to experience the infusion of endorphins that play released, but really, is this necessary? Maybe he just did it for fun. Where did our emotions come from if not from our animal ancestors? Many human emotions are similar to those of animals. We are them and they are us.
When off his leash and flying around the room, Wesley dive-bombed the pillows on my bed and popped straight back up, barely losing speed, then zoomed across the room to smack his talons full force into the couch, leaving punctures wherever he landed—an attack kitten. Then he headed straight for the wall and landed on the edge of a picture frame, holding on with all his might and flapping his wings so hard that the frame banged against the wall over and over again, leaving a dent. He finally lost his grip, rescued himself from falling with a quick flip sideways and a swoop to the floor. There he explored every nook and cranny, including suitcases, boxes, and bags. Galumphing with great intensity toward the dark closet—I had left the door open—he slipped inside.
For a long time I heard him rummaging around. Then nothing. Hmm, awfully quiet in there. I started to worry and finally crawled into the closet to investigate. There was Wesley holding perfectly still, doing a split, with one leg desperately clinging to the top of one dress, the other leg holding on to another. Wesley was stuck, and uncharacteristically quiet about it. I recalled that, in the wild, when animals think they’re in trouble, they immediately freeze, hoping not to attract predators. He may have been anxious in that relatively new territory, but he allowed me to rescue him and return him to his perch.
That wouldn’t be the last time Wesley decided to mountain climb the clothing in my closet. From his vantage point on the floor, looking up at the dark spaces between clothes, it probably felt familiar to his instincts, which had evolved so that he would expect to be inside a hollow tree, or be attracted to that vertical dark situation. He’d explore this “tree” by working his way to the top, bracing himself between my dresses as he ascended. His legs would inch apart a little more at each step until he could no longer move, then he’d hold on for dear life with his talons. Finding him in that helpless position, I’d give him a little nudge so he could finish climbing up.
Soon, every piece of fabric I owned bore little punctures, as if someone had patiently gone over each garment with an ice pick. I figured that being a biologist was explanation enough, so I just walked around in clothes with lots of holes in them. As a rule, scientists don’t seem interested in fashion and don’t tend to worry about what other people think, outside the machismo of the science culture. If I had taken a poll around Caltech, few would have known what Prada was, much less which shoes were worn in what season. If we shower and shave, we figure, what more do you want from us? One of my office mates owned ten identical pairs of gray pants, white shirts, and white socks, to go with one pair of Birkenstocks. For decades, he wore the same outfit to work and never needed to shop or make a decision about what to wear. His was a fairly typical and perfectly acceptable style among scientists.
Wesley left a mark on almost every item I owned, and I sacrificed more and more of my property to Wesley’s whims—clothes, books, papers, blankets, and furniture. I just didn’t care about those things and felt like the luckiest person in the world to have him in my life. Each talon puncture was evidence of my baby’s brilliance and personality. I actually saved books that he’d ripped apart because his beak marks were on them. I was pretty besotted.
Wesley’s play included me of course. Our early game of his chasing my feet under the blankets had evolved. At first he had just run back and forth on the bed chasing my toes, but as his flying improved, he would fly straight up into the air, flip, then do a power dive and thrust his legs forward for the attack. Then he would fly a lap around the room to gain speed and pounce with all his might on my well-blanketed feet.
Of course there were little mistakes. One time my foot slipped out from under the covers while I was napping, and he did his power dive into my bare foot with full talon crunch. I leapt straight up from my pillow shrieking in pain, scaring Wesley so much that he flew around the room in a panic until I calmed him down and was able to hold him. He started his “I’m so ashamed” routine of pushing me away, refusing to look at me, hunching up, and trying to face a wall. But I comforted him, crooning to him, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” While I cradled him, my foot was bleeding, but that would have to wait. It wasn’t his fault, I was the one who had let him play this way for so long.
Since owls don’t flock, herd, or pack, they have no social setup for correcting each other’s behavior. Therefore, Wesley had no way to interpret any act of aggression except as a threat on his life. For this reason, the number one rule in interacting with birds of prey is that you can never show them any aggression. You cannot try to discipline or correct them as you would a child or dog. They would not understand it. I could never raise my voice or do anything that might seem at all aggressive, even when trying to stop Wesley from doing something for his own protection. I could only gently remove him from whatever situation was putting him or me in danger. Eventually, he might learn that a certain behavior wasn’t allowed, but not in the usual way. It took longer and required much more patience than the normal pet owner or parent is accustomed to.
Wesley had his own mind and did not obey me, but rather, lived in a kind of mutual cooperation with me. I did not actually try to train him in the traditional sense, but simply endeavored to protect him from himself. He learned from me as he would have learned from an owl parent—not by being corrected, I think, but by observing me and making his own decisions about how to behave. Certainly I was not interested in changing him, since I was learning from him about what it meant to be an owl. Taming an animal is not the same as training him. I am not an animal trainer.
Social animals in general are easier to teach because they seem to think the same way we do; they understand that a show of aggression is just a temporary correcting reaction. W
One of the reasons I had moved in with Wendy was to help out with her baby, Annie, while her husband was on the road. It was a joy to be involved in helping to rear a child, since I did not have children of my own. Following Wendy’s lead, we never said Annie’s name in anger and we didn’t say “no” unless it was a very serious matter. We just informed Annie, “Not for babies” when she reached for something unsafe, and reserved the word no for the most dangerous situations.
Knowing that I had to be as careful with Wesley as with Annie, I tried Wendy’s strategy with him, too, and I avoided using the word no for minor issues. Whenever he got into something that wasn’t safe, I said, “Not for owls” and removed the object gently from his grasp. Because he tended to lock on to anything that interested him, I’d often have to distract him to get him to let go. Trying to get him to let go of a mouse, for instance, would have been almost impossible if I hadn’t distracted him, and he would have fought me for it. Thankfully, there were only a few occasions when I needed to take a mouse from him, for instance, when it wasn’t fit for him to eat.
Annie came to understand the seriousness of “no” and would stop dead in her tracks if one of us said it. Wesley, however, only stopped long enough to consider whether or not he thought it was worthy advice. Although he knew exactly what it meant, he was still an owl—stubborn and wild.
Most people prefer to work with animals that have a social instinct, because they are more malleable. Owls’ willfulness often causes them to be misunderstood. I was told that owls were “stupid,” but much later learned that the person who told me this really had meant you can’t train them to do your bidding. Well, those are two very different statements. Owls are highly intelligent. They just keep their own counsel and don’t care to obey anyone else. Why should they? In the wild they are loners, although to their mates they are the sweetest, most devoted creatures on earth.
During Wesley’s first year, I continued to follow him around as he played and explored, watching out for anything that could pose a threat. Danger lurked everywhere, and as his owl mother, I had the job of saving his life on a fairly continual basis. Besides “child-proofing” everything, I was extremely careful about what I allowed into the living space we shared. Drinking glasses and flower vases were forbidden because he might knock one over and cut himself. Besides the obvious poisons like drain cleaners and bleach, other dangerous liquids included all caffeinated beverages: the caffeine jolt we depend on in the morning can cause heart attacks in birds. I had no idea what might lurk in houseplants, so I just kept them out of the room. No plastic bags—Wesley might have put his head into one, gotten stuck, and suffocated. Eventually, almost all my framed pictures were taken down, as his flying attacks on the frames sometimes ended with his falling pretty hard to the ground with the picture. Anything on which he could land that would flip up in his face was also forbidden, such as a saucer or plate. Any important paper items were also eventually hidden in drawers so he wouldn’t rip them to shreds.
A few years old, playing in newspapers next to his emergency carrier. Stacey O’Brien.
Living in earthquake country meant I had to keep furniture bolted to the studs in the walls and had to make sure that nothing heavy that could fall on him was on a wall near Wesley’s perch. Earthquakes usually start small, so even a minor quake would set everyone into crisis mode. I kept an animal carrier under Wesley’s perch and would race to put him in there at the first sign of a temblor. He seemed to understand what was going on and stayed in the carrier quite happily until I felt that the danger had passed.
Before I knew it, Wesley was celebrating his first birthday, February 10. Dr. Penfield and I figured that he was four days old when I first saw him on Valentine’s Day, so I made the tenth his official birthday (or hatch day). I decided it was time to let him kill his own mouse in honor of all he’d learned and accomplished. After all, he’d been practicing his flying and pouncing moves, so why not try them out on the real thing? I did not take this lightly and stood by to intervene if Wesley started to hurt or scare the mouse without killing it instantly.
I got a small mouse and put it into the shower where it wouldn’t hop out. Wesley would be able to take his time and chase it down. I imagined he’d pop into the air, do a fast swoop with the talon-crunch follow-up, then bite the neck just as he had bitten the film canister. No such luck. Wesley was terrified of the live mouse, cowering against the shower door and hissing under his breath. Gathering his last bit of courage, he finally faced it and gave it his “no-nos,” standing in front of it and slowly moving his head from side to side. Not intimidated, the mouse simply washed its face. Dr. Penfield had said that an imprinted owl could never learn to hunt, so I should have expected this. The reasons for this belief are complicated. The most obvious is that an owl imprinted on a human doesn’t have parents to teach him, and he was imitating me. But his threatening of the mouse was interesting. Perhaps he was confused, since he was used to seeing dead mice. Seeing one alive and animated may have frightened him so that he reverted to a threat gesture. But there may have been a lot more to it than that.
Humans and other mammals sense danger using a very busy part of the brain called the amygdala, which handles sensory input. It acts as a sort of Grand Central Station for interpreting what the senses perceive, using memory and emotions in the process. In birds, the amygdala has developed to become much larger in proportion to that of mammals, and may partially account for the extreme intelligence of birds as well as some of the differences in their thinking. Scientists used to think birds’ brains were simpler than those of mammals; now we think they may be just as complex, but in a very different way.
Birds make the same kinds of neural connections as mammals, but certain parts of their brains have developed differently. In birds, the larger amygdala may have evolved to handle more complex processes than it does in mammals. In mammals, this structure is a primary player in the handling of emotion, but in birds it is used more to integrate information and less if at all for emotion and danger assessment.
The bottom line is that birds’ brains have evolved a different intelligence from our own and we are just now starting to get a handle on how they use their brains. By comparing the brain functions and structures of birds and mammals, we can now see that their brains evolved in different physiological directions. Even with different structures taking on different functions, however, the two groups developed similar kinds of intelligence—so similar, in fact, that we can communicate and share emotions with each other.
Whatever was causing Wesley’s strange response to the mouse, I decided to wait until next year to try it again.
Love to Eat Them Mousies
At about four years old with Stacey, Wesley is threatening the photographer. Connie Fossa.
SOME VERY IMPORTANT PEOPLE from England were scheduled to stay at Wendy’s house during their visit to the United States. Our extended family was nervous and wanted things to go perfectly, so we spent an entire week cleaning the house, planning meals, and then cleaning some more.
On the evening the guests were to arrive, I brought home two bags of live mice and set them in my bathroom so I could kill them on the floor and hide them in the freezer before the VIPs made their appearance. Like all full-grown barn owls, Wesley ate three to four large whole mice per day, and it was hard to keep up with his needs. However, before I could even begin, Wendy called me from the kitchen, “
“Sure!” I replied, not wanting to leave her shorthanded. I rushed out of the bathroom, figuring I wouldn’t be gone for more than a minute or so. More about that later.
As I chopped away on a bunch of carrots, I worried that if Wendy started telling them about Wesley, our visitors would want to meet him. If I leashed him to his perch, people could stand in the doorway and look at him, but once people saw how beautiful and expressive he was, they usually became insatiably curious, asking if they could watch him play, fly, and groom, which they could not do, as Wesley was particularly shy around strangers. I didn’t blame people for asking, though. After all, it’s a rare opportunity to get up close to an owl. I didn’t mind showing him off, but I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about his eating habits.
Wesley had two methods of eating mice. The first involved swallowing the dead mouse whole, headfirst, as a snake does. The pink tip of his beak peeked through his feathers daintily, but in reality his beak was huge, extending almost all the way back to his ears. One way I could easily wow people was to put my finger in Wesley’s mouth so that it opened a little and they could see how it dominated his face and could easily take in a whole mouse. Wesley usually employed the whole-mouse method when he was very hungry or in a hurry, although he would first nibble around gently, without taking any bites, to arrange the mouse so that he could swallow it headfirst. Owls do not chew their food but either swallow a mouse whole or rip it into chunks, which they also swallow whole. But they can still breathe in spite of a mouthful of mouse because the glottis, the tube through which they breathe, is close to the front of the mouth near the base of the tongue. The esophagus is completely separate and far enough away from the glottis so that an owl can still breathe even with a mouse partway down his esophagus on the way to his stomach.
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