Oh, you beautiful owl

Why are owls so appealing?

A farmer reports a Great Horned Owl in one of his buildings, and it turns out to be Stripey . . on a nest! Even better, she lets Terman tickle her on the nose. From now on she's a girl -- Terman thought she was a boy. This kind of encounter doesn't half bond you to a bird!

(Photo Max Terman)

Another similar, if briefer, experience is told in Sushi’s tale on OwlPages.com. Sushi is a Barred Owl who was brought as an abandoned chick to Ellen and her husband Steve in north Florida. The story includes a truly extraordinary episode that throws a remarkable light on the capacities of these birds. Sushi was released, found a mate and left the area round Ellen and Steve's house. By this time Ellen had become so involved with her ex-charge that she confessed she would burst into tears if Sushi ever showed up at the house again. It's unlikely that Sushi's story will leave even the most stony hearted dry-eyed!

Ellen was most helpful to me with my first orphan chick, Owly. Early on she told me that rearing an owl would change my life. Only later did I realise I should have taken her more seriously! Because my experience has been somewhat similar in that I was drawn into the lives of a couple of local tawnies who were trying to raise families on crows' nests. As a result of looking after two of their orphaned chicks and losing another two, one of which died in my hands after a night spent trying to keep her alive, you could say I became totally committed to their cause! In all honesty I can't say if I'm fonder of them than other birds I've kept, but there's no doubt that owls are something special. They have their own unique character, which is unlike other birds, and their unique form and the way they move and conduct themselves certainly gives them a very special appeal.

Left: Sushi the Barred Owl. A few more pics on her page 8. (Photo Ellen Ensley)

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And there are more . . .

I hope the owner of the Owlcam website won't mind me saying that I know he felt a terrible loss when June and Ward, the two Barred Owls who used his nestbox for some years, vanished after their chicks were killed by a marten. I know he would be over the moon if they returned. Our own little wood would feel quite different if our two wonderful tawny parents disappeared, particularly the beautiful, gentle-faced mother who I've come to know so well over the last few years. These owls become personalities in one's life, absolute individuals who one thinks about often, and towards whom one develops a strongly protective sense, almost as one would to a child that is having to make its way in a dangerous world. One's apprehension is only heightened by learning that owls now face dangers that simply didn't exist before the industrial age -- fast traffic, power distribution lines (with which they collide), unprotected transformers (on which they are electrocuted), poisons, barbed wire, loss of nesting sites and so on.

Right: June impresses with her gentle beauty and intelligent mothering in the OwlCam DVD. For more see page 9 of the Owl Gallery. (Photo OwlCam)

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The owl rescue centre

Which takes us neatly back to the rescue centre, where many owls that have been lucky to survive brushes with death are cared for. Derek and June, the owners, are two more people who had a chance encounter with an owl and lost their hearts to them. Derek lost a leg in a work accident and puts his compensation money towards the upkeep of what must now be approaching 100 owls and hawks, as well as budgies, parrots, geese and a crow. Maybe it was his own disability that made him keep a tiny little tawny with only one wing and almost completely blind in both eyes. "She's quite happy", he told me. "There's absolutely no point in putting her down." Having watched her often and been in the cage which she shares with many other tawnies, I have to agree completely. She's alert, half-flies and half-jumps around the flight cage in a very active way, and can enjoy the warmth of up to a dozen of her mates when they cram into one of the roosting boxes. There's no evidence that she or any of the other more disabled tawnies are set upon by their stronger cage mates.

Below are two pics of European Eagle Owls at the rescue centre. In fact it could be said that these may soon become just as much indigenous British birds as the parakeets in and around London. More so as they were probably truly indigenous in the country until exterminated about 200 years ago.

There are more pics of the range of owls at the centre on the next page (page 3).

European Eagle Owls. Hear the calls made by a pair of these owls in spring. Recorded at the owl rescue centre.

EEO hoots (399.39 K) EEO whistle-hoots (1.07 Mb)

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Finally, the impossibly appealing Northern Saw-Whet Owl about sums it all up. The magic formula seems to be big eyes in that unique owl face plus large head plus round fluffy body. It's sort of teddy bear, pussy cat and bird rolled into one irresistable package. In the case of the Saw-Whet there's also the vulnerability of this tiny, fragile, 3 oz bird. I'd add that when you get to know owls what strikes you is their dignified sense of self. Like pussy cats owls do their own thing in their own time, and owl time can be slo-o-ow. You can't push an owl around. This is probably why they're widely regarded as untrainable. Maybe for the same reason many consider them stupid. I don't find them to be so at all. Give an owl space and it shows itself to be highly intelligent and, once it's got to know you, well aware of what you want it to do. Sometimes it'll even do it!

Left: Selection from a pic by Rob Tallman published online by the West Virginia Wildlife Magazine. (Photo Rob Tallman.) For the full pic and article go here.

Next page: Owls at the rescue centre

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powered by owls

If ever I were to be smitten by an owl, this is the one I'd have smite me. The effect of the calm, intelligent gaze of those eyes is indescribable. He was my desktop screensaver for months!

So what is it about owls that's so compelling? Well, yes, everyone comments on the appeal of the large, striking, forward-facing eyes. But there seems to be more to it than that. Here are the words of someone, a university professor, who spent years tracking a released owl that had come his way as an orphan:

... over the years [I] have cared for a plethora of snakes, raccoons, opossums, and other small denizens of the wilderness. ... None of the previous laboratory inhabitants, however, would enrich my life like this one owl.

That's Max Terman, in Messages from an Owl (Princeton University Press 1996). The owl was Stripey, a Great Horned Owl (as in third pic down) who came into the author's life quite by chance as a chick fallen from the nest. Terman took the owlet on as a research subject for his students, and after she was old enough for release tracked her through the Kansas countryside around his home for many years. In doing so she became much more than a research topic, absorbing his thoughts and engaging his emotions.He fretted about how she was doing out in the wild, and on one occasion felt oh so rejected when she hid from him in a field! Not only that, of course, he wrote a book and made a film about her. The book is out of print, but copies in good condition can be obtained from sources such as Alibris. The ‘messages’ refer -- among other things -- to the radio tagging gear he used to track Stripey after her release. There's no better book for revealing just how you become smitten by an owl. You also learn a great deal about how an owl lives out there in its natural habitat. Highly recommended.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT OWLS that makes them so attractive, so appealing? Surely part of the answer must be in the photo of the Bengal Eagle Owl above. All one has to do is put it into words . . somehow.

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Great Horned Owl hoots, made by the bird in the picture above (460 kb)

. . . and a Great Horned Owl

A Bengal Eagle Owl at our local rescue centre

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