Tuesday, July 28, 2009

infuriating myths about owls still prevail!

It seems I've been inundated with people parroting the myths about owls, long, long, long after those myths have been discovered to be completely false. And I'm so frustrated. When I was a teenager and my family decided to explode into a million unrecognizeable pieces, JUST as I was starting college and trying to adjust and do well academically, I used to sometimes drive off to somewhere secluded and just scream and pound the stearing wheel (after I'd parked). Thisi seemed a better way to handle my frustrations than doing drugs or alcohol, which would only make things worse.

Sometimes I feel like going off somewhere and screaming when I hear owls so terribly represented. Yeah, I guess I'm emotionally involved!

I heard this guy on TV last week talking about how owls are "stupid" and don't want any affection in their lives, hate to be touched, and he even said they had bad eyesight! What was he thinking? To make matters worse, he was an owl trainer! But not a scientist.

A few years ago I was visiting one of my Caltech mentors when I told him about a zoo director who had gone on TV and proclaimed w/ great confidence that "owls hunt using echolocation, just like bats!". I was so frustrated. They do NOT have any form of echolocation! For years and decades and decades we've known that owls hunt using sound alone. Their hearing system is almost unmatched and their feathers are completely silent in flight so that nothing interferes w/ their ability to hear their prey accurately. Even their faces are perfectly formed to funnel sound into their ears like satellite dishes. In fact, if you clip away a section of feathers on their face, they will either overshoot or undershoot when trying to home in on prey.

I ranted and raved to my mentor, who remained completely calm. His only answer was, "But he is not a scientist, Stacey!" For him, that was reason enough to be wrong and to declare it from the rooftop of national television. But it was not enough for me. Was this guy so surrounded w/ yes people that no one ever told him he was wrong? Was he completely incurious about how owls really hunt? I'll never know.

And here I was again, years later, seeing yet another "owl expert" on TV tallking trash about these amazingly intelligent, highly affectionate, awesomely visioned wild souls. AAAARRRGGGG!

A friend of mine saw it, too, and called me, all worked up. "Can you believe it? I can't believe it!" she groused.

Ok. So let me just say for the record what is TRUE.

Owls have AMAZING eyesight. Their eyesight is far superior to ours because they have a reflective layer behind the retina that reflects light back onto the retina, so that they can see in extremely low light. There are other reasons their eyesight is superior, such as the way in which cells are grouped on the retina, the relative size of the retina to the brain, and the brain structures that process the images.

Owls are HIGHLY INTELLIGENT! I suspect that this guy was actually trying to say that owls are hard to train. THAT is true. They have their own minds and, although they may understand what you say, they do not have a need to do our bidding. Nope, not even for a reward. They are not puppies! They are very independently minded wild animals, which is why I love them so much! You have to EARN your relationship w/ an owl and he may decide that you're not good enough for him at any time, if you screw up by showing your temper or by being ignorant with him. For example, many people say, "Shhh shh shh shh" to a human baby to calm the baby. That works w/ humans but to an owl, you're HISSING AT HIM! So he just gets more and more upset. That doesn't make HIM stupid, it makes the human stupid, or at least ignorant of the way of owls in some manner.

Birds are among the most intelligent of all animals. This is a fairly new concept, as we used to think that brain size was directly linked to intelligence. Now we know that's not true! Parrots and crows have an IQ roughly equal to that of a 5 to 7 year old human, and in fact can outclass humans in some areas of problem solving and reasoning. Wesley showed me that owls are in the same category when he learned to understand much of what I said, and even varied his normal owl sounds to create his owl repertoire of new sounds which had specific meanings. In order to do that, he had to first learn that my words meant something, then realize that sounds could have meaning, then decide he wanted to communicate with ME, then figure out a way to do that using sound. Pretty darn smart!

I'd like to do the whole thing again - start with a baby barn owl (I'd have to get a new permit since Wesley's permit was only for him as long as he was alive), and this time, I'd want to document/film every new step as it happened. With Wesley, I had no idea this was going to happen so I was always about 2 steps behind him in realizing what he was up to!

How about that big ol' myth that owls hate to be touched? This is possibly the most egregious of the myths because those who believe it raise owls in captivity in a world completely devoid of all affection! And what happens when you raise any being in a cold world w/ no touch? The being becomes aloof, alone, depressed, and afraid of touch. So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you observe owls in the wild, they spend hours a day cuddling, allopreening (grooming each other), snuggling. We could learn from them how crucial affection is to the health of sentient beings! Why would they be any different in captivity? They're not.

Wesley and I snuggled every day. He would leap into my arms and snuggle down, closing his eyes and making little tiny cuddle sounds. I would pet, preen, and cuddle with him. In fact, we fell asleep almost every night like that - him lying in my arms and me stroking his feathers. He fit right in the crook of my arm and we would walk around like that, with him pulling up his talons like landing gear. He craved and demanded affection from me, just as he would have from a mate in the wild.

They are so emotionally attached to their mate in the wild, that if the mate dies, owls will sometimes will themselves to die rather than finding a new mate. It depends on the individual owl's temperament and how long the mates were together. Owls have also been known to care for a sick mate for years, even, doing all the hunting and feeding the ailing mate. Hawks have also been known to do the same.

So, when you see a so called expert on TV telling you that owls are stupid, unaffectionate, hunt by echolocation, or have poor eyesight, just remember, they don't actually know the truth about owls. If it's a trainer, he's probably expressing his frustration at how they are almost unwilling to be trained. If it's a zoo person, they are just parroting what they've been told. If it's a rehabber, they may know how to rehab an animal, but it doesn't mean they have all the latest scientific knowledge at their fingertips.


Sylvia Harp said...

Stacey, Thank you for your fight on behalf of animal intelligence and emotion.
I fight the same battle for horses. There are no dumb horses, only dumb humans. I always say that I speak for those who cannot.
I am a fan of yours and read everything you write. Best to you, Sylvia

Leslie said...

After reading about you & Wesley Stacey, I would never believe anything any so-called "owl expert" said. Same goes for "Alex & Me" about the African Grey Parrot. Owls & parrots are very intelligent, it takes a special human to learn to communicate with them!! Hope you are enjoying the Summer!


Leslie said...

I just went back in posts to see the photo of Fiona--she is Gorgeous!! Some family friends have a Burmese Mountain Dog, which looks similar, but in black! Also added the books you suggested on my Amazon wish list. They sound great. Thank you.

Norma said...

I just finished your book and loved it! Your love and dedication to Wesley and your relationship was inspiring.

One question--why didn't you raise mice--wouldn't that have been an easier way to provide the 28,000 mice he needed?

My husband and I had an incredible experience with an owl--I think a Great Horned--when camping in Vermont. At dusk, I heard the owl and then saw him in a tree, about 100 feet from us. Looking at the owl, I imitated his hoot. The owl flew to a tree only feet away from us and hooted again. I imitated the hoot again-- and he flew right at us! OK--I admit--we got scared and jumped into our tents and the beautiful owl soared just inches over us!

Anna K said...

Thank you for setting all those people straight who think they know so much about owls, yet know nothing!

I have a great fascination, love, and respect for owls because they are so intelligent, somewhat mysterious, and beautiful. I love them!

I have told you this before, but thank you again for sharing your story about Wesley. It has made such a strong imprint on my heart. It was the best love story I have ever read!

From your friend in Missouri,

hlp said...

Dear Stacey O'Brien
thankyou for your beautiful book and sharing your love and knowledge of Wesley with us all. I hope the sale of this book has helped you financially (I am sure Wesley would approve)and your health has improved.You obviously have a strong network of supportive family and friends to help you along, although nothing will ever replace Wesley. I am sure you will have unconditional love (in a different way) with Fiona.I have always shared a relationship with dogs through my life, (beyond my family and children)and they have all been very special with their own individual personalities.
Thankyou again for your story. We look forward to more.
Bilgola Sydney Australia

mithu said...

i'm so glad you spoke on their behalf because that stupid owl trainer about whom i posted a comment on your blog a month or so ago really burned me up! i never doubted wesley's intelligence or any other owl or animal for that matter. there are so many people who think that to obey a command is the sign of intelligence but they forget that each animal has a mind of their own and that most of them could care less to do a human's bidding!

i often hear terrible things about cats from people who don't live with them AND surprisingly from people who do. they are often called cold, without much personality and sometimes, stupid. i have 3 cats and i can say without any bias (really) that my cats aren't the only ones who need love and affection to display more layers of their very distinct personalities. a cat nor any other animal will reveal themselves immediately to a person. i think people don't want to invest time and energy trying to get to know these animals...and under these circumstances i don't understand their reasons for wanting one as a pet.

people will always have some ridiculous misconception of animals just because they're not human; i think some people have it "built into" their cerebral cortex that human beings are superior to other animals. that's just plain rot! what i find even more shocking is that these people don't even want to listen to any evidence that proves that they are wrong! i feel like i'm being looked at in a condescending manner or worse, that i'm some kind of a nut job because i talk about how deeply perceptive animals are (i use my own cats as examples).

i hope that some of these ignorant people will read your book or your blog and sincerely want to learn more about all animals. it would make the world a much better place to live in because people would stop and think before they made snap judgments about others, animals included of course!

Eileen said...

Dear Stacey,

I have a friend who loves owls in the way of admiring them and she has many pictures, toys and statues of owls, so I bought this book for her. I wanted to read the book first to see whether she would really like it.

I have just finished your book which I did not want to put down but had to, so it took me two days. I am heartbroken.

Your story has touched me in so many ways, as love will do. I very much enjoyed your writing, your lighthearted, deeply appreciative and sincere tone, and the modest and friendly way you shared your knowledge.

I was especially moved upon learning the emotional distinction between herd animals and those who are not and the sensitivity of the latter to correction. Loyalty, tenderness, joy and respect take on even more profound dimensions when one must never misstep on the Way of the Owl. I hope I have learned a lesson from this truth, despite the easy saying, "Forgive and forget" and human trust in redemption, for it would be far better to dwell in the Eden of compassion, or, as St. Francis said, to understand than to be understood, than to be carelessly inconsiderate in bold assurance of later reconciliation as I have so often done. The amygdalas of even us herd animals sustain assaults and our better ability to cope is really no excuse for inflicting them.

Thank you also for bravely sharing your absolutely understandable terror in grave illness and the desperate thoughts that ran through your mind. I am deeply impressed by your decision to live, again in the context of the Way of the Owl and, in tears, I rejoiced at the power of your shared love that saw both of you through.

Thank you so much for this powerful, joyful book and its profound insights. Sincerely, Eileen O'Malley

Holly said...

I don't know if you'll get to see this (or if you'll get notification of the comment), but I was reading through your blog and this post definitely struck me. First let me say, I recently finished reading your book, and it was simply fantastic!

Anyway, my point -- I just wanted to share with you that happily, there are other owl trainers and rehabbers out there who seem to get what you're talking about! Last summer, I attended a raptor educational show by Tom Ricardi, in Massachusetts (oddly enough, at nearly the same time as you were making this post).

One of the birds he brought out was a great horned owl -- and even during the show, he and the owl were very physically affectional with each other. While he was talking, at certain points (when he was holding the owl close enough to himself), the owl was nibbling at Tom, especially seeming to try to allopreen his moustache, and Tom was in turn scritching the owl.

To be honest, I don't remember Tom saying anything specific about that; but that may be more due to my not remembering, than to him not commenting on it. (That is, he might have talked about the fact that this owl liked to be scritched, and discussed that the owl was nibbling at him as an affectionate gesture, and I just don't recall it well enough to quote it.) But at least, it's good to know that there is someone going around the New England area doing raptor education for people, especially kids, and by example refuting the idea that owls don't like to be touched or that they are standoffish.

(Another example: I also recently attended a saw-whet owl banding demo at a local Audubon sanctuary. The bander made the point that after handling hundreds of wild saw-whets, she noticed a really wide range in their personalities -- some obviously don't like to be handled very much, and let you know it. But she said that some seem very calm and curious about the people handling them. When the banding is all done, the owls are placed on people's arms and allowed to fly away in their own time. She said that some stick around for a surprisingly long time. And while we were watching her hold one of the owls, she stroked and scritched the top of its head, and reported that even in the case of feisty owls, this seems to calm them. With that owl, it was certainly true; it had been beak-clacking, but when she stroked its head, it looked up at her, and then its eyes drifted shut.)

Anyway, I thought it would be good to chime in with some more observed evidence of owls enjoying human touch, and reciprocating! And again, thanks for all you've done.

Daniel Bence said...

Thank you for the information you provided on owls. My 10 year old son came home last week and told me that they had an assembly where a owl "expert" had told them that owls were not smart. My son said that the reason given for the owls lack of smarts was their big eyes, which left the owl with a small brain cavity and therefore brain. There were other statements made that ( after reading your article and that of other experts) I was able to correct in my sons mind. Thank you for providing such passionate and accurate information, it has helped my son and I to gain a better understanding and respect for all owls. Great job!!!