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The story of an odd couple-a British military historian and the Tawny Owl with whom he lived for fifteen years
Martin Windrow was a war historian with little experience with pets when he adopted an owl the size of a corncob. Adorable but with knife-sharp talons, Mumble became Windrow's closest, if at times unpredictable, companion, first in a South London flat and later in the more owl-friendly Sussex countryside. In The Owl Who Liked Sitting ...
The story of an odd couple-a British military historian and the Tawny Owl with whom he lived for fifteen years
Martin Windrow was a war historian with little experience with pets when he adopted an owl the size of a corncob. Adorable but with knife-sharp talons, Mumble became Windrow's closest, if at times unpredictable, companion, first in a South London flat and later in the more owl-friendly Sussex countryside. In The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, Windrow recalls with wry humor their finer moments as well as the reactions of incredulous neighbors, the awkwardness of buying Mumble unskinned rabbit at Harrods Food Hall, and the grievous sense of loss when Mumble nearly escapes.
As Windrow writes: "Mumble was so much a part of my life in those days that the oddity of our relationship seldom occurred to me, and I only thought about it when faced with other people's astonishment. When new acquaintances learned that they were talking to a book editor who shared a seventh-floor flat in a South London tower block with a Tawny Owl, some tended to edge away, rather thoughtfully . . . I tried to answer patiently, but I found it hard to come up with a short reply to the direct question 'Yes, but . . . why?'; my best answer was simply 'Why not?'"
Windrow offers a poignant and unforgettable reminiscence of his charmed years with his improbable pet, as well as an unexpected education in the paleontology, zoology, and sociology of owls.
"Charming . . . an eloquent yet unsentimental testimonial about a man devoted to his "one true owl", and the profound impact that relationship with this bird had on his life." —The Guardian
"Unlikely books are often very endearing—this is one such book. An utterly charming work, perhaps best read at night when there are owls about." —Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series
"The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is pure joy. Martin Windrow shows us the essence of a wild animal in a story as informative as a scientific paper on the species Strix aluco, but much more fun to read. Owls are among the world’s most interesting creatures, and to see one up close and in detail as we do here is a valuable experience that will appeal to readers of every kind." —Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of A Million Years with You: A Memoir of Life Observed
"With a keen eye for the telling detail, Windrow has written an informative, tender and, yes, wise memoir on the blessed ties that bind people and their pets—one that should find a permanent perch on your shelf." —Jay Strafford, Richmond Times-Dispatch
"Funny, touching and divertingly novel . . . [Windrow] has produced an homage to both a creature and its species that is almost Leonardo-like in its precision and spirit of curiosity. The result is nothing less than a small masterpiece of animal literature . . . [A] perfect book." —Ben Downing, The Wall Street Journal
"Charming . . . Mr. Windrow’s owl fascination knows no bounds." —Carmela Ciuraru, The New York Times
Man Meets Owl—Man Loses Owl—Man Meets His One True Owl
It all began, as so many things have done over the past half-century, with my older brother, Dick.
By the mid 1970s he had achieved his long-held ambition to move out into the Kent countryside and acquire as old a property as he could, with enough space to indulge his several hobbies at weekends. (The list has included, over the years, competitive rally-driving, military vehicle restoration, aviation archaeology, rough shooting, and falconry, besides guitar blues and various other pastimes involving extraordinarily exact and fiddly work for a man with large paws.) Since his wife, Avril, was both patient and highly competent in a wide range of practical skills (from fine needlework and working in silver, through gardening and animal husbandry, to concrete-mixing, structural repairs, and decorating), Water Farm soon became a very attractive and interesting place to spend time, even though the farmhouse's immediately previous occupants had been sheep. Moreover, there were very few commodities or services that you could discuss with Dick without seeing a thoughtful look steal over his friendly, slightly battered countenance: "Ah, now that's interesting—as it happens, I know this bloke who ..." (can supply an army-surplus tank engine, cures sheepskins, works as a film stuntman, knows when his lordship's warrens will be unguarded for the weekend, understands explosives, breeds wild boars, speaks Dutch, casts things in fibreglass, can get you whatever-it-is without the bother of boring paperwork, etc., etc.).
At that time I was living in a high-rise flat in Croydon, South London, and commuting daily to a publisher's office in Covent Garden, where I worked as the commissioning and art editor of a military history book list. In those days the extended family usually spent Christmases at Water Farm, and—since I both lived and worked surrounded by dirty concrete and diesel fumes—I would often exploit Dick and Avril's endless hospitality to spend summer weekends in the Kent countryside. They kept a variety of animals over the years, off and on: multiple cats (including one who proved humiliatingly better than me at hunting rabbits), doves, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, a few sheep, a goat, a donkey, a Dexter-Angus cross cow, my nephew Stephen's splendid polecat-ferret Shreds, and for a time even a raccoon (fully grown, they're a great deal bigger and stronger than you might think). I was not particularly an "animal person," but this menagerie certainly added to the attractions of peace, space, clean air, and Avril's magnificent cooking.
Before they even moved to Water Farm, Dick had become interested in books on falconry. Inevitably, he soon made friends in that world too, and acquired his first bird—a sleekly beautiful Lanner Falcon named Temudjin, after the young Genghis Khan. After buying the farm he built a mews and flights (living quarters for falcons, and aviaries large enough for them to move around in), and as his knowledge, circle of acquaintance, and skills all increased, these quarters came to be occupied by a succession of hunting birds. They included kestrels, buzzards, goshawks, and even a second-hand Steppe Eagle suffering from something called "bumble-foot" (no, me neither).
Watching Dick handle and train these lovely creatures, it was impossible not to become intrigued myself. When I was finally allowed to pull on a glove and take one of them for a supervised stroll through the fields and lanes, the medieval spell brushed me at once. It's a hard feeling to describe. There was vanity, of course: I refuse to believe the man lives who would not find himself striking a Plantagenet pose and unconcernedly stroking his falcon's breast when a turn in the lane reveals a couple of gratifyingly impressed young female ramblers. But it was more than simply ego; it was a new kind of relationship for me, which put me in touch with a different set of feelings. I suspected that they went deep, and came from somewhere very old. It was a slow process, which I did not even admit to myself for some months, but gradually I began to realize that I wanted some sort of lasting contact with this new thing.
The idea of keeping a falcon in a high-rise apartment block in South London was obviously ridiculous, but the daydream would not let me alone. It was my sister-in-law who unwittingly showed me the way in. Avril had wanted a bird of her own for some time, but one that could be fitted into the routine of the tirelessly active mother of two boys. Dick duly made a number of phone calls to gentlemen with odd nicknames, and in the fullness of time "Wol" took up residence in Avril's kitchen, spending most of his time on a perch in the shadows on top of a tall cupboard. Avril's kitchen was a welcoming haven for casual passers-by, and the addition of a Tawny Owl simply added to its attractions. (Wol sat so still that he was always assumed to be stuffed, until an eventual blink gave the game away; this had been known to cause a visitor to spill coffee or choke on a mouthful of cake.)
I was charmed by Wol from the moment I laid eyes on him, and as it became plain how easily and unhysterically an owl—if taken young enough—can grow accustomed to human company, my resistance to the nagging idea of getting a bird for myself weakened.
* * *
IN THE SUMMER of 1976 a friend and I begged spare beds at Water Farm while we attended a short parachuting course at a nearby airfield.
This was long before novice sports parachutists had access to modern rigs with their relatively light packs, mattress-shaped canopies, and sensitive controls that allow you to make a "stand-up" landing almost every time. Roger and I were taught how to make the landing-rolls that were necessary with the old World War II–vintage Irvin chutes with the X-type harness, which seemed to weigh as much as (and brought you to earth with all the cat-like grace of) a sack of potatoes.
My first jump was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. First came sheer, abject, bowel-loosening terror, as the engine of the little Cessna was switched off and I had to clamber out and balance between the wing strut and the landing gear, straining to make out the jumpmaster's reminders above the rushing of the wind. Then—when the canopy had slammed open, the tight harness was holding me like the hand of God, and Kent was smiling up between my feet—came a wave of sheer exhilaration, which redoubled when I struggled to my feet after managing a successful landing.
However, it was the third jump that proved to be the most memorable experience. With the positively eerie lack of physical co-ordination that had been so noted by sports masters during my schooldays, when the final "green rush" snatched me down, I misjudged my roll spectacularly. I hit the ground backside-first, thus guaranteeing one of the classic (and excruciatingly painful) parachuting injuries—a compression fracture of the lumbar vertebrae. The luckless Roger, who had drawn second straw and was still some hundreds of feet above the drop zone, had to prepare himself for his own landing while being distracted by my noisy writhings. My most lasting memory of the next half-hour is of a young pre-jump army cadet among the circle of anxious figures staring down at me. He put a cigarette in his mouth, patted his smock pockets distractedly, muttered to his comrades—who shook their heads, unable to take their solemn eyes off me—and then leaned down to ask me if I had a light, mate. Temporarily preoccupied with thoughts about my spine, I was unable to oblige him.
In June 1976 southern England was sweltering under a once-in-twenty-years heatwave, and the hospital bed in which I was trapped, sweating freely and unable to move an inch, was immediately below a large skylight in the low ceiling of a single-storey side ward. Staked out under the burning sun like a victim of the Apaches, and unable to face the truly hideous hospital slops, I coped partly thanks to a kindly veteran night nurse with a relaxed attitude towards injecting Demerol, and partly thanks to Dick, who faithfully visited me on his way home from work every evening, bringing delicious sandwiches. After a week, corseted in sweaty canvas and metal splints, I was able to lurch slowly out to his car, moving like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, and was carried back to Water Farm to convalesce.
* * *
UNAVOIDABLY, OVER THE weeks that followed I spent many hours lying on a blanket in the shade with a book, or tottering slowly around while I recovered my mobility. I had more time to watch Dick's birds than ever before, and my interest grew. Even I couldn't spend entire days reading books without a break, and the birds became a welcome distraction. With the time to simply be still and observe them, and to revisit them for fairly long periods several times a day, I began to get a sense of the rhythm of their lives rather than just a series of snapshots. Watching them preening themselves brought the detailed structure of their bodies into closer focus, and I started to notice their individual characteristics. I began badgering my brother with questions about their quarters, food, daily routines, medical and emotional needs, and other anticipated requirements, some of them no doubt extremely silly.
These conversations continued intermittently by telephone long after I had returned home. If Dick had agreed with my often expressed doubts about the whole idea, I would probably have given up; but he isn't the kind of person who assumes in advance that any dream, however daft, is unattainable. Before long I was running out of arguments against myself, and the evening came when I took a deep breath and asked Dick to telephone "this bloke he knew." Perhaps with some vague idea that if keeping an owl proved to be a disaster, then a small owl would make it a small disaster, I asked him to find me a Little Owl (this is a species, not a description).
And so it was that in the autumn of 1977, a six-inch, four-ounce bundle of feathered fury took up residence with me on the seventh floor of a large concrete apartment block beside the A23 in West Croydon. With his distinctly hawkish profile, beetling brows, and blazing yellow eyes, his name could only be "Wellington." Unfortunately, he also turned out to share the Iron Duke's stubborn willpower.
* * *
THE THRUSH-SIZED LITTLE OWL—Athene noctua—is the smallest of Britain's owls, and the most recently arrived. It was introduced during the second half of the nineteenth century from continental Europe, by landowners attracted by its reputation as the scourge of mice and of insect pests; in several European countries Little Owls are actively encouraged by farmers, and protected by law. There is an attractive story that the first Englishman to exploit their usefulness was Admiral Nelson. When he was serving in the Mediterranean he is supposed to have acquired one hundred Little Owls from North Africa and given them to each of his ships; they were kept on the officers' tables at mealtimes, to clear the weevils out of their spoiled ship's biscuit. (I have no idea if this tale is true, but I would love to believe it. I can just hear Nelson's seadogs cheering on their owls and laying wagers on how many prizes each would take.)
The current British population is estimated—with the usual airy lack of precision found in all such figures—at anything between five thousand and twelve thousand breeding pairs. It has diminished over the past few decades, and is now on the conservationists' "amber list" as a species causing "moderate concern." They are the least nocturnal of our owls, and although they do hunt after dark they are also active during daytime. Little Owls have barred and mottled dark brown and white plumage, and a rather more streamlined silhouette than larger species, with a flatter-looking top to their heads. They have the broad, rounded wings of a woodland bird, and a very short tail. In Europe they prefer to live in woods and copses among farmland, and as you drive through the English lowlands you may occasionally spot a hunched little figure sitting on a fencepost, checking out the open terrain of fields and hedgerows. At the right times of year they may even be seen following the plough to catch worms.
The first of my many mistakes had been in asking for this breed of owl at all, and worse still was the fact that this particular owl was already six months old, and had spent those months in a large aviary with other birds. The most basic rule when seeking to tame any wild creature is that it should be isolated from its kind and raised by the handler from the earliest possible age—as soon as it can safely be separated from its mother. With careful kindness, the animal may be persuaded to project onto the handler any potential it has for social feelings. It is widely understood that a truly social animal, such as a dog, can easily be trained to regard its human owner as the "alpha dog of the pack." A solitary hunting bird—a raptor, such as an owl—feels no such instinctive connection. The egg must be taken from the nest and hatched in an incubator, so that as soon as it emerges from the shell the hatchling sees, and is fed by, a human.
It has sometimes been said that the bird will then "imprint" on this person, forming an unbreakable bond and making it impossible to return it to the wild. That is to overstate the case by a wide margin. A fledgeling raised for its first few weeks by one handler can easily transfer this familiarity to another human. Foundlings raised by humans have often been reintroduced to the wild successfully by a process of gradual disengagement. Alternatively, if carefully introduced to an aviary with other birds, then in time they become accustomed to the company of their own kind. However, if the bird spends the formative first weeks of its life outside the egg among other birds, and without being handled by a human, it is widely believed to be more or less untamable. This was the case with Wellington; I ought to have known that my attempts to "man" him—to tame him to my touch—were probably doomed from the start.
* * *
BECAUSE WELLINGTON WAS a nervous wild creature, unused to being handled, he had to be "jessed" like a falcon before I took him home with me, or he would have been impossible to control.
Jesses are narrow strips of thin, light leather that a falconer fastens round his bird's ankles so that it can be held by them as it sits on his fist. The trailing ends are united with a little metal swivel-ring device (for falconry, a pair of tiny brass bells are also attached). When the falconer passes a leash through the swivel-ring—a yard or so of cord, with a stop-knot at the bird end—he can tether it to another swivel-ring on its perch or on a "weathering block" in the open air. This leaves the bird with plenty of room to move around but no chance of tangling itself up in the leash (or that's the theory, at least; in practice, some birds seem able to defeat this supposedly foolproof design with laughable ease).
Fitting jesses to an untamed bird is obviously a job for two pairs of hands—in the case of Wellington, belonging to one expert and one apprehensive novice. He had to be taken out of his cage and held passive, lying on his back, with his legs in the air and his wings held gently but firmly to his sides—if he could get a wing free and start lashing about, we were in trouble. Some people favour holding birds swaddled in a soft cloth, while others are confident enough to take the correct hold with bare hands. As a nervous apprentice, I found it a disquieting job: until I had done it a few times I didn't have an instinctive feel for how and where to grip. I was naturally terrified of holding too tightly—any constriction of a bird's chest can be fatally dangerous—and I was taken aback to discover just how strong and wriggly such a little bird could be.
If you get it right the bird just lies there, perfectly safe and comfortable, but a picture of outraged dignity. Personally, I always felt embarrassed and apologetic at that point, but this obscure sense of moral inferiority to the bird can disappear in a hurry if it manages to get a foot into you. Even the smallest raptors have extraordinarily powerful talons, and if they connect, they hurt. One of the tricks Dick taught me was that a bird that's feeling spiteful can be given a pencil to hold: as soon as this touches its feet the wicked hooks snap closed around it and hang on to it like grim death while you get on with fitting the jesses. (Since these inevitably get worn and tatty with badly aimed droppings, the remains of food, and frequent absent-minded chewing, the chore of fitting your bird with nice clean socks has to be repeated at fairly regular intervals. However tame and lazy you think it has become, it can still give you a painful surprise if you relax your concentration during this procedure.)
Excerpted from The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow, Christa Hook. Copyright © 2014 Martin Windrow. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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