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Wesley the owl, p.9
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       Wesley the Owl, p.9

           Stacey O'Brien
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  Wesley learned this system on his own. I had not made it a mission to teach him to communicate with me as, say, biologists do with parrots or chimpanzees. And, from a strictly scientific point of view, Wesley wasn’t speaking a vocal language. I do think that some of his consistent actions could be considered a primitive form of sign language, as well as his consistent sounds, if language is defined as a system of communication that works consistently between two sentient beings.

  Clearly, Wesley had adapted beautifully to his unique situation living in a human, indoor environment. And he was communicating. While I won’t claim that all barn owls have rudimentary language skills, I will claim that this one barn owl developed a rudimentary language by using his massive auditory cortex to adapt to an environment where this skill would be useful to him. Because I had talked to Wesley so much from his infancy, as his auditory brain developed, I think that he made the connection first between actions and words and then between actions and particular combinations of words like “It’s time to go to sleep.”

  People, too, can understand another language without being able to speak it. One of my best friends grew up in a Japanese home where she and her siblings spoke only English and their parents spoke only Japanese. The parents understood English and the children understood Japanese, but neither could reproduce the language that they easily understood.

  Similarly, it didn’t matter that Wesley, given his vocal apparatus, couldn’t make human sounds any more than it mattered that I couldn’t make owl sounds. We developed a way of communicating with each other through our own language and gestures.

  At two years of age, Wesley began to adapt his natural owl vocalizations to make new sounds to mean a variety of things. He adapted his begging sound, for example, to have slight variations in pitch, length, and intensity. Each new vocalization meant he was begging for a specific item. One variation meant “I want you to open the door.” Another meant “I want water.” Yet another one meant “Let me off my perch.” Just the begging sound alone had about twenty new variations. I learned his meanings just as he had learned mine.

  If I wanted him to land on my arm, I’d say, “Wesley, come here,” and hold out my arm, tapping the spot where he should land. He’d fly to me immediately. But if he were uneasy about the landing, because my skin rolled around over the muscle, making an unstable place to land, he’d shake his head midair, and fly to a nearby spot instead, then wait for me to pick him up. When I sang or played music in the room, he would shake his head as if it hurt his ears. In fact, it probably did. With his sensitive hearing, my music must have seemed unbearably loud. I moved my electric piano out of the bedroom and began listening to CDs on headphones.

  But I still noticed him shaking his head fairly often as if his ears were irritated even after I stopped playing music in the room. I was worried about his ears and for once, completely stumped. I called Dr. Penfield.

  “I’m worried he’s got an ear infection,” I said.

  “Oh, that’s not likely. Was he unhappy, uncertain, bothered about something? Did you bring anything new into the room that might have upset him?”

  “Yeah, actually. I put up some new pictures. But what would that have to do with his ears?”

  “It’s not that his ears are bothering him,” said Dr. Penfield. “Barn owls do this when they are uncertain, irritated, or somewhat upset. It can be a little thing that bothers them, not enough to elicit a hiss. The head shaking is almost an unconscious gesture. But that’s what it means. Something as simple as new artwork on the wall might be enough to trigger this response.”

  Almost invariably, Dr. Penfield knew exactly what an owl was trying to communicate. He taught me to observe carefully and to notice details that even many experts would miss. Because he modeled the value of attention to very subtle differences in behavior, I was able to observe that Wesley was changing his vocalizations significantly. He continued to alter them from normal barn owl sounds to new variations modified to fit specific scenarios. My childhood training in music was helpful, since I was sensitive to pitch, tone, and rhythm. I could tell when Wesley made a slight variation to a sound he had used in general situations, and I’d make note of it. This new variation would inevitably pertain only to a particular situation, for instance, if Wesley were reacting to my opening a window or answering the phone. Over time it became easier for me to know exactly what he was referring to. My nineteen years of living with Wesley gave me the unique opportunity to learn to communicate with an owl, which had never before been documented to such an extent. The great biologist Bernd Heinrich noted in his book One Man’s Owl that his great horned owl was just starting to specialize his vocalizations at about two years. However, Dr. Heinrich kept his owl for only two years because he was sucessful in teaching it to survive in the wild.

  An all-or-nothing creature, Wesley’s emotional responses were as transparent as a child’s. Things were black or white, good or bad, safe or dangerous, so he always expected me to follow through with exactly what I told him I was going to do. Otherwise he’d become visibly upset, refuse to make eye contact, or even screech in protest until I did whatever I promised. Owls do not tolerate lies. If I said, “I’ll play with you in two hours, Wesley,” and then went about my business, two hours later he would start screeching and become unmanageable. I was stunned to learn that he had processed what two hours meant. I would say “in two hours” and then follow up two hours later, and did that so often that he was eventually able to figure out that it meant he had to wait a certain period of time. Somehow, he did know, generally, about how long two hours was, although he didn’t learn other time periods in chunks of hours. He also learned what “tonight” meant, as well as “tomorrow.” He may have been tapping into certain patterns of mine, but still, he was able to put those patterns together with my statements about “tonight” and “tomorrow.” I was unable to discern how he knew all that he knew. I wouldn’t have been as surprised if a dog had learned what Wesley did, but I hadn’t expected an owl to have such abilities. Wesley would screech all through the night if I did not keep a commitment, making it impossible for me to sleep. It was just one of the many life lessons Wesley was teaching me, another Way of the Owl: if you make a promise, keep it.

  One evening, I noticed Wesley chewing on the edge of a book, fascinated by the feel of the soft, slightly crispy pages. Taking away the book, I gave him a magazine, which he explored tentatively at first, but then began to rip into long shreds. He loved it! From then on, one of Wesley’s favorite pastimes was tearing up magazines. I’d put one on his perch and he’d tear it gleefully into strips and piles of tiny beak-sized triangles onto which he’d pounce with abandon, like a kid in a pile of leaves. I’d say, “Do you want a magazine?” and Wesley would beg and jump around excitedly until I produced one.

  Wesley would never get my old Audubon magazines, but after I finished People, Rolling Stone, or a catalog, they became owl fodder. He didn’t seem to have a preference, though thicker magazines provided more of a challenge. This ritual eventually developed into “magazine night” as in “Do you want to have magazine night?” which he understood was entirely different from just, “Do you want a magazine?”

  Wesley lies across Stacey’s arm with feet up like landing gear. Wendy Francisco.

  Magazine night meant we got ready for bed, then I gathered a whole pile of magazines and propped myself up in bed to read them while he flew around the room and pounced on things. After finishing a magazine I would put it on a pile next to his pillow on the bed, and he’d eventually fly down and start shredding the whole stack. He would sometimes rip and tear and mince those magazines for a couple of hours. Finally satisfied, he’d climb up on my lap and ask to be cuddled. I would lift him and lay him over my left arm, with his feet dangling and his head in my left hand, and I’d groom him while he slept.

  While I was recuperating, I’d lie in bed and groom Wesley for hours. Wild owl mates do this for each other and it’s very soothing to them. I f
ound it soothing, too. With Wesley draped across my arm, I carefully groomed him, plucking off waxy tubes and smoothing new feathers out in proper alignment. He’d relax in my arms, making a gentle nibbling motion with his beak, which I’d try to imitate with the tips of my fingers while grooming. Wesley would reciprocate, running his beak lightly over my face and hair. But my hair was so long that he would lose his place and get tangled, so finally I just let him groom my bangs and he was happy with that. Wesley and I shared many such tranquil moments. We’d watch the cats, dogs, and goats playing in the backyard as mockingbirds dive-bombed their backsides trying to grab fur, clouds floating along in the sky on a windy day, leaves and birds flying past the window.

  During one of these lazy afternoons, Wes began to get restless and beg for more mice. That was a bit unusual because he’d already had his quota for that day. But the four mice didn’t seem to satisfy him and for the next few days, Wesley’s appetite increased until he was eating seven mice a day and would not be happy with any less. I was flummoxed. I hadn’t seen him eat like that since he was a baby. This continued for a few weeks and then I began to notice more feathers on the carpet than usual. They were everywhere. He was dropping them fast. One morning in July he flapped his wings vigorously, and the feathers lying all over the place blew up into the air. My room looked like the aftermath of a big pillow fight.

  I thought Wesley must be sick, but he acted healthy and full of energy. I fed him the requisite seven mice and called Dr. Penfield to ask what might be going on.

  “Oh! He’s molting. He must be two years old now. This is perfectly normal. My owl used to molt every year starting when he was two. It’s very dramatic, isn’t it?”

  It certainly was. I was inundated with feathers. How could he lose so many and still have enough to fly and stay warm? Birds are automatically geared to respond to changes in the length of day, which triggers many of their cycles. The owls at Caltech didn’t molt this suddenly because our lighting system was on a steady twelve-hour timer. So Wesley’s extreme molt was a surprise for me. And I was amazed at the sheer variety of his feathers. There were so many different structures and types that they didn’t even look like they came from the same bird. There were thick, fuzzy down feathers for warmth and insulation, and slick, curved body feathers for aerodynamics and flying. There were tiny facial feathers that looked like sparse Christmas trees; they helped to funnel sound toward his ears. But my favorites were the long, beautiful flight feathers, cream and gold with brown bars, built to carry him on the air. I gathered and kept them in a big box.

  Wes had a lot of new pinfeathers growing in, so I had to be extra gentle when I handled him. Ever since he was a baby, Wesley emitted a high-pitched cry when I accidentally poked a pinfeather, which hurt him. Hearing his cry, I’d instinctively let go of him, so it wasn’t too long before he began to figure out that if he made that sound I would release him instantly, and he started using it any time he wanted to be let down, even if he wasn’t hurt.

  Wesley was gentle with me, too. He had somehow learned not to scratch my skin and would lift his toes just enough so that the sharp tips of his talons didn’t hurt me. He figured this out on his own even though I had never exclaimed in pain when he’d scratched me because I knew it would make him feel ashamed.

  From two years old on he had a full molt every July. About a third of his feathers would fall out and a big rush of new feathers would grow back in. It was quite an event. He’d eat seven mice per day for over a month to prepare. Wesley let me know that he needed at least seven by begging incessantly until I gave him the right amount. Finally, I got the hang of it. By December he had finished replacing all of his feathers from the summer molt and was in full owl regalia. Right before Christmas, he had a secondary, less dramatic molt that was still a show. Every time he flapped his wings the whole room turned into a snow globe, feathers exploding in a flurry before gently settling down to the floor. Wesley’s December molt was my California white Christmas.


  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

  ACCORDING TO WILDLIFE rehabilitators and scientists, a tame owl like Wesley would never be able to survive in the wild because he could not develop the skills needed to hunt. Rehabilitators had learned this after releasing hundreds of barn owls they raised from babies back into the wild. All died within a short period not only because they couldn’t hunt but also because they had no knowledge of what dangers to avoid—something their parents would have taught them. Since Wesley had failed at hunting mice when confronted with the one live mouse in the shower, I assumed that the pet finches I kept in my bedroom were perfectly safe. Wesley simply ignored them, using their cages as a perch when he was off his tether. Nonetheless, I always covered their cages when he was loose, just in case he was tempted.

  So I was vaguely surprised when I came in one Friday afternoon after having let Wesley loose in the room to play on his own, to discover that one of the cages had fallen off the cupboard where it usually sat. Two finches were gone, and after a brief search, I couldn’t find them. I became suspicious of Wesley that night when he wasn’t particularly interested in his dinner. But I couldn’t imagine he would have actually captured a pair of agile birds when he wasn’t even able to hunt mice. Either he could hunt or he couldn’t. I assumed that he had accidentally knocked the cage over and the finches had gotten out of the room on their own somehow. I moved all the other cages as far as possible from the edges of the cupboards on which they stood.

  A week later it happened again, but this time there was evidence—a scattering of little feathers from one of my favorite finches on the floor. My heart sank. I was not pleased, but I didn’t reproach Wesley, who had done it out of instinct. I couldn’t blame a predator for being a predator, but I clearly needed to find new homes right away for my remaining fourteen birds. I decided to take them all to Caltech on Monday and see if anyone would take pity and adopt them. To get through the weekend without further incident, I kept Wesley leashed unless I was in the room to supervise him, even though it still didn’t make any sense that he could have caught my birds.

  Again I misjudged the situation, still picturing Wesley as a friendly, nonhunting owl—my little baby. That Sunday afternoon I took a nap when Wesley was off his perch. Crash! I woke just in time to see Wesley flying in circles around the room to gain speed, then pouncing hard against the side of one of the ten remaining birdcages. After he pounced on the cage of a zebra finch and pushed it off the edge of the cupboard, I jumped out of bed to rescue the little bird. But I was too late. The door had popped open on impact and the zebra finch had flown out in a panic. Wesley chased it with the most amazing flying I’d ever seen, matching that finch’s intricate flight move for move. Darting up into a corner, flipping to go straight down, hugging the wall, zigzagging across the room with Wesley right on its tail, this little finch maneuvered so swiftly that Wesley looked huge and cumbersome in comparison. Yet Wesley never lost his rhythm. Finally, still in flight, Wesley reached forward with his feet like an eagle and grabbed the finch, falling to the ground with it in his talons. He had killed that little bird before I could get to him.

  Wesley let out a victory cry. I was stunned. What had happened to my timid little guy who had cringed against the shower door in fear of a mouse? He was transformed into this aggressive, Red Baron, dogfighting machine—focused, unstoppable, and unbelievably capable. I was confused and upset about my finches, yet impressed by Wesley’s abilities, which he had developed despite being raised in captivity.

  While I kept Wesley tethered for the rest of the weekend, I did a lot of thinking. Would Wesley be able to hunt mice, now that he’d figured out how to hunt birds? We had been taught that, without exception, barn owls in the wild eat a diet consisting almost entirely of mice, with only 2 to 3 percent being small birds. Did Wesley have it all backwards? Would he have been a bird-eating barn owl in the wild? And why? He had expended so much energy catching that finch that, nutritionally, it almost wasn’t worth the t
rouble. Predator survival is all about expending less energy to hunt than the energy gained from the food itself. Swooping down on a mouse is much easier than chasing a bird and provides the owl with many more calories.

  I loaded nine cages—some holding pairs and some with single birds—into my car Monday morning and took them with me to Caltech. I would miss my pretty little birds and their songs and tweets, but I sure wasn’t willing to risk any more being killed. One particularly softhearted woman adopted almost all of them on the spot. I was so grateful to her. Most Caltech postdocs live in large houses in Pasadena that they share with quite a few other postdocs, and I wondered what on earth her housemates thought when she came home with all these new pets. Of course, anyone who rooms with a biologist should expect these things.

  No one knew the answers to my new questions about Wesley’s hunting, but in spite of my eyewitness reports, the scientists were adamant that a barn owl raised by and imprinted on a human could never become a good hunter. Many times in the past, people had released owls who were unable to survive on their own—so much so that the birds trusted and approached humans to beg for food, only to be killed. Ignorant of the experts’ beliefs about his abilities, however, Wesley was doing quite a few unexpected things, and my conception of his capabilities was broadening.

  On Wesley’s third birthday, I allowed him another opportunity to dispatch his own mouse. Even though I knew Wesley did not have the stamina to provide for himself in the wild, I wanted to see if he could learn to hunt mice without having observed an adult owl do so. In rehab centers, owls are raised from the egg to hunt. But to avoid having the owls associate humans with food or imprint on them, the rehabbers use puppets that look like adult owls to feed them from day one. Later the owls can learn to chase mice and hunt. Even though tame owls supposedly could not hunt, Wesley had certainly caught that finch midair as if he’d been doing it all of his life. Perhaps he would fool the experts again. I placed a live mouse in the shower and brought in Wesley.

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