Messages from an Owlby Max R. Terman
When zoologist Max Terman came to the rescue of a great horned owlet in a Kansas town park, he embarked on an adventure that would test his scientific ingenuity and lead to unprecedented observations of an owl's hidden life in the wild. "Terman's book combines an off-beat adventure story with pertinent observations on the nature-versus-nurture debate and stylistically wavers between scientific detachment and a more anthropomorphic tone.... [He] is a skilled and dedicated animal behaviorist. The book is a unique and fine testament to long hours spent on the twilit Kansan prairie."--John Bonner, New Scientist"This is a meticulously recorded scientific observation. But it's one appealingly interwoven with emotion and sentiment. In a word, it's readable, for ornithologist and layman alike.... The strength of Terman's writing is an unaffected blend of feeling and precise scientific note-taking.... It could well take its place among naturalist classics."--Keith Henderson, The Christian Science Monitor "Terman gives an engaging account of his experiences in training and tracking a captive-reared great horned owl."--Publishers Weekly"This book provides a readable, informative account of the intimate relationship between a college biology professor and ... an abandoned nestling great horned owl named Stripey.... Ornithologists and bird watchers will enjoy reading this interesting book."--Wildlife Activist
"This is a meticulously recorded scientific observation. But it's one appealingly interwoven with emotion and sentiment. In a word, it's readable, for ornithologist and layman alike. . . . The strength of Terman's writing is an unaffected blend of feeling and precise scientific note-taking. . . . It could well take its place among naturalist classics."Keith Henderson, The Christian Science Monitor
"Terman gives an engaging account of his experiences in training and tracking a captive-reared great horned owl."Publishers Weekly
"This book provides a readable, informative account of the intimate relationship between a college biology professor and . . . an abandoned nestling great horned owl named Stripey. . . . Ornithologists and bird watchers will enjoy reading this interesting book."Wildlife Activist
"[A] wise and delightful account. . . . "Library Journal
Read an Excerpt
Messages From an Owl
By Max R. Terman
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1996 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Launching new life
Young horned owls that are raised in captivity and Subsequently released in suitable back-yard surroundings Invariably remain dependent on their Human foster parents until well into autumn. Much Can be learned from watching these captive youngsters, Whose behavior and development patterns Closely parallel those of wild horned owls. By supplementing Random field observations of young Horned owls in the wild with detailed observations Of captive ones, a more complete explanation of their Activities after nest departure is made possible. These Studies help to avoid much speculation on numerous Questions that might never be settled by observing Wild owls in the darkness of their natural Surroundings.
—G. Ronald Austing and John B. Holt, wildlife ecologists
Occasionally, but not often, the lives of wild animals become entangled with our own. When a young great horned owl in a park in a small Kansas town fell to the ground, there began a story of teacher becoming student, of subject informing scientist.
One sunny March day in 1988, a local minister became involved not only in the affairs of his congregation but also in the serendipitous aspects of nature. This is noteworthy because some men of the cloth tend to be so driven by spiritual motives that they seldom tune in on natural phenomena. Pastor Dennis Fast was not one of these. When he discovered a fallen owlet, the instinct to "rescue the perishing" prevailed. Immediately he called me to say that a young owl, nearly starving, was huddled at the base of a tree in the Hillsboro city park.
As a professor of biology at a small college in a country town, I often receive such calls, and over the years have cared for a plethora of snakes, raccoons, opossums, and other small denizens of the wilderness. Many of these animals became research subjects for my ecology and animal behavior students. None of the previous laboratory inhabitants, however, would enrich my life like this one owl.
I was reluctant to go out after an owl that probably was only waiting to be fed by its foraging parents. However, there was a chance that this animal had indeed been abandoned and I was the only person in the area with legal certification to collect wildlife specimens. On my way to the car, I met Richard Wall, a fellow biologist and my colleague in the department. Never too busy for the intriguing moments in life, Richard quickly jumped in my van and drove with me to the city park.
Near the park entrance, three young boys clustered around the base of a Siberian elm. All were pointing to a squawking ball of grimy cotton with a gaping black beak. It was thin and gaunt and had not been fed for some time. "That bird's in trouble." Richard's voice reflected his gentle, concise manner—a demeanor humble in appearance, that masks his considerable talents. Richard is a tall, robust man with a full reddish beard, one of my students from my early years of teaching. As frequently happens in towns like Hillsboro, he had come back from the big university to his roots, to continue growing where he sprouted.
After informing the boys of the little bird's species and its future disposition, we stooped to inspect the defiant black eyes and clacking bill that confronted us. I reached in front of Richard for the noisy little owlet. At once the beak clacked louder and the dagger-sharp talons raised skyward. This bird was already in full possession of its species' fierce disposition. Since I had handled owls previously, I knew how to grasp the young raptor safely by the legs above the talons. Such a move takes practice and cool nerves. Eventually, the little owl balanced itself on the surface of my hand, amazingly content and quiet for one being handled by an alien species.
Our subject was about four weeks old. I estimated its age by my knowledge of a series of photographs from a 1940s study done at the University of Kansas, "the prairie Harvard." In this study, a pair of owls had reared their young near an upper-story window of the Natural History Museum, where two alert professors photographed them as they developed. It was research of considerable worth performed on a very common but neglected species. Great horned owls are noted for their ferocity and cryptic habits, making them unpopular candidates for Ph.D. theses and short-term grant proposals. This ferocity is reflected in an account given to naturalist A. C. Bent (in Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey) by a resident of the state of Washington in the early 1900s:
As a young man, in Tacoma, the writer once lived in a house which immediately adjoined a large wooden church. My chamber window looked upon a flat kitchen roof, through which projected a brick chimney some ten feet away. At three o'clock one morning a horrible nightmare gave way to a still more horrible waking. Murder most foul was being committed on the roof just outside the open window, and the shrieks of the victims (at least seven of them!) were drowned by the imprecations of the attacking party—fire-eating pirates to the number of a dozen. Pandemonium reigned and my bones were liquid with fright—when suddenly the tumult ceased; nor could I imagine through a whole sick day what had been the occasion of the terrifying visitation. But two weeks later the conflict was renewed—at a merciful distance this time. Peering out in to moonlight, I beheld one of these Owls perched upon the chimney of church hard by, gibbering and shrieking like one possessed. Cat-calls, groans, and demoniacal laughter were varied by wails and screeches, as of souls in torment—an occasion most memorable. The previous serenade had evidently been rendered from the kitchen chimney—and I pray never to hear its equal.
While they universally excite our nights with their multifarious calls, they are themselves a consummate mystery. What if just one of them could communicate with us? What messages about the world of the night would it reveal? The idea of rearing my own emissary to the wild began to take form in my consciousness.
I judged the bird to be a male because of its small size and comparatively subdued manner (females from the beginning tend to be larger and noticeably more aggressive). The owlet was obviously in food distress and appeared to be abandoned, but young birds on the ground may be merely waiting for the parents to bring them food. Apparently both parents feed the young, a noteworthy event in itself. Great horned owlets commonly leave the nest at about five to six weeks of age to inhabit the nearby brush and rank grass, where they are later located and fed by the parents. Great horned owls are noted for being very protective of their young—even to the point of attacking and seriously injuring persons approaching nests or chicks on the ground.
A thorough search of the area where we found our owl showed no sign of the parents. Given its emaciated condition and the obvious absence of either parent, I decided that this baby owl had indeed been abandoned. At the same time, the realization began to take shape that this owlet provided an excellent opportunity for a behavioral study using radiotelemetry. Through my work in outdoor biology, I possessed the proper state and federal permits and had for some time been looking for an animal on which to do a long-term telemetry study. This would be an ideal project to base at my rural home on the prairie about five miles away from campus. But first, we would have to nurse him back to health in my lab at Tabor College.
My plot of prairie, which I call TESA (an acronym for Terman Environmental Study Area), is a beautiful fifteen-acre sliver of native grass salvaged from the plow and the cow. My house is a passive solar earth-covered structure (an underground house with one side exposed to the sun)—a mere smile in the side of a hill—blends perfectly with its surroundings of big and little bluestem and prairie wildflowers. Pheasants, quail, wild turkeys, and a host of other natural "tenants" regularly visit the front yard and the nearby pond, seemingly unaware of the low-profile human habitation. With its hedge-bordered expanse of grass and the nearby wooded creek, TESA would be a great place to release the owl. However, the area was inhabited by other great horned owls—a fact that was to have a major impact on the future of my owl.
Bernd Heinrich, a University of Vermont biology professor and author, had written a book about a similar adventure with a hand-reared owl. I studied the pages of his One Man's Owl, relishing the communality of experience. Heinrich, however, had not been able continually to follow his owl, Bubo. Armed with the technology of radiotelemetry, I would be able to climb on the back of my owl and through the magic of radio waves accompany it wherever it went, an idea I found exciting.
After loading the little owl into a cardboard box, Richard and I carried it back to the college. Tabor College is an institution much like its harboring town of Hillsboro—small, seldom noticed, but good at turning Midwestern sons and daughters into articulate servants of society. Such a student was Pete Johns, the tall, angular offspring of a USDA official from Colorado. As a student in my animal behavior class, Pete was given the young owl for his course project.
What about a name for this bird? This was no small matter. In the words of philosopher Francis Bacon: "Name, though it seem but a superficial and outward matter, yet it carrieth much impression and enchantment." As a scientist, I knew this business of giving names seemed anthropomorphic—forcing humanity's mode on those not human. However, everything has to have a name or we cannot refer to it in any specific way. Even the biblical Adam was directed to give names to creatures as one of his first tasks.
The new arrival was visited by many "Adams," each exercising a basic urge to bestow a name on the little orphan. Owls, by their very appearance, literally demand to be called "Henry" or "George" or some other name that would fit an old, rather wise and stodgy gentleman. Owls have always fascinated humans—their wide blinking eyes, ear tufts, powerful beaks, and mournful voices both endear and repulse. Because owls are often perceived as both beautiful and sinister, wise and evil, something like a love-fear relationship has arisen. No simple task, giving this owl an appropriate name!
Pete decided to call it—simply enough—Stripey. Not too imaginative, but possibly indicative of how owls recognize each other in a fence row. Subtle differences in spots or stripes or angles of the feathers may allow for individual recognition. This owl later proved that he could and did recognize individuals of his own and other species. For Stripey, the name was appropriate, for his stripes were strongly evident.
Stripey's progenitors were of the Midwestern race of the widespread great horned owl species. Each race, of which there are twelve in North America, is adapted to its local environment. Stripey's genes reflected the contributions of thousands of owl generations that may have survived and passed on their heritage simply because a stripe on the breast resembled, to prey or predator, a beam of sun across a shielding cedar tree. As a hatchling, Stripey had certainly been exposed to the behavioral heritage of his mother, a phantom winged tigress who inhabited the local golf course and city park. While golfing, I had often come across the scattered remains of her victims, a circular pile of feathers in the middle of the fairway—all that remained of a dove or quail that was not quick enough. Certainly this grand hunter could impart through her genes a disposition amenable to developing what it took to live with humans.
Would Stripey function like the owl he was, or would he be an "imprint"—a technical term describing an individual with a mistaken species self-image. Had I sentenced Stripey to this mental purgatory somewhere between identity and confusion? Raptor rehabilitation centers go to great lengths to prevent human contact with the many young birds that are brought to them; we have all seen the mother puppets used in the California condor release program. The conventional theory is that imprints are unable to relate to others of their own species once they are imprinted and thus cannot be released to the wild. In the few observational accounts available, imprinted owls are described as loners, always in the corner of the cage, never interacting normally. There are no accounts, however, of the fate of imprints released to the wild and followed for any length of time.
With Stripey perched contentedly in a large aquarium in the back of the laboratory, Pete and I sat in my office planning his future. The idea was to rear this owl with maximum human contact, then release him and keep tabs on his activity through telemetry. I warned Pete: "You'll almost have to live with Stripey—feeding him, touching him, and basically substituting yourself for his mother. We must be certain that he has adequate opportunity to identify with humans."
My now wide-eyed student intently considered the implications of what I had just said. Pete was a lover of nature and the chance to interact with an owl excited him far beyond the natural bounds of a course project. After briefing him on what to look for in Stripey's emerging behavioral repertoire, he left my office in joyous kinship to Jane Goodall, or at least to Grizzly Adams. Within the hour I saw Pete and his girlfriend in the back of the lab finger-pecking the bill of the young owl in a gesture of mutual "grooming."
Owls are funny about grooming. Even wild owls will caress the top of a human head presented to them. Owl rehabilitators will often coax a reluctant invalid owl to feed in this way. A fearful wild owl will, supposedly, be calmed and placated by this sign of friendship, bow to its caretaker, engage in grooming, and then eat. Although my hair was often groomed by Stripey, I would be reluctant to try it with a winged tiger whom I did not know.
Stripey was now squarely in the world of humans. He had been thrust into one of the most interactive of human institutions—a college. At Tabor College, much important communication is accomplished by people who never plan to bump into each other but conveniently do—a characteristic of the milieu created by the small size and intimacy of the place. Important decisions are more often made in hallways than committee rooms, a situation that eventually culminated in the decision to let Pete and me keep Stripey.
Feeding the owlet was the first significant problem we faced. Within days, we realized that the appetite of the white fluffball with the gaping bill was well along to outstripping our ability to trap cotton rats, deer mice, prairie voles, and whatever other rodents resided on my bit of prairie. We were already spending most of our spare time trapping food for this insatiable bird. What more could we do? Pete and I did not want to completely sacrifice our home and social lives to ease the hunger pangs of one small owl.
The answer came to me after noticing a huge pile of raw meat scraps that remained after one of the college's special steak dinners. If we could occasionally give the owl a mouse to maintain his search image (which later proved to be very important), perhaps we could keep Stripey satisfied with leftovers from the cafeteria. It was worth a try.
Substituting meat for mice was no problem. The owl thrived—literally growing exponentially while filling the lab with long, attention-grabbing 'cheeeeps' or begging calls. In the wild, these cheeps are emitted by young owls who have left the nest; the cheeping stops as they mature. The parents, hearing these vocalizations, can then readily locate and feed their offspring. Stripey never ceased giving these calls, even as an adult. Somehow, the image of this large Lord of the Night, cheeping from the limb of a stately oak, seemed both ill-suited and altogether hilarious.
We soon appreciated the amazing amount of effort expended by parent owls to fledge just one of their offspring. This labor characterizes parenting in general, especially relative to the formidable costs involved. For wild animals, life strategies are set by the comparative costs (energy requirements) of reproduction. If food or other resources are in short supply, reproduction is halted and reserved for a better time. The fine-tuning of environment and physiology is set with no greater precision than in procreation. We humans, removed from the direct effects of natural selection and living in our own created world, often forget the tremendous implications entailed in deciding (or not deciding) to produce offspring.
Excerpted from Messages From an Owl by Max R. Terman. Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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