Sunday, April 11, 2010

To bathe or not to bathe; to hunt or not to hunt; these are the questions

Hi All!

I thought I'd clarify a bit about the bathing question and the "will Molly hunt" question:

When I'm answering on the chat, questions are flying by really fast and, as you know, I only have a set number of words to work with to answer, so i can't go into any of the caveats or subtleties in my answer. I just have to give the "most likely" scenario without the exceptions to that "most likely" rule or scenario.

With bathing, when Wesley took an interest in water in 1985, it was possibly the first time a biologist had observed a barn owl deliberatly getting wet, especially getting waterlogged so as to not be able to even BEGIN to think of flying. Wesley was totally helpless and earthbound. Not only that, he was shivering with hypothermia, his down feathers being totally soaked and unable to trap body heat.

Owls are NOT waterproof! This has to do with the way their feathers are set up for completely silent flight. When you hunt by sound, you can't have your own feathers making noise, can you?

Since scientists had not observed owls taking baths in the wild, they figured Wesley's behavior was an amusing anomaly.

Since then, however, many owls and barn owls have been observed approaching water and deliberatly getting wet. These owls were seen to be enjoying it and getting something out of it. Some also were seen sipping the water. Before that, we thought all the water they needed was in their prey, which still may be true. It might just be fun to sip water. We know, now, that animals do things for fun sometimes! ;-)

Most observations of owls in water indicate that they are not allowing themselves to become waterlogged, but are only getting wet on the surface, the way Molly did the other night. If she'd been soaked to the skin, she would not have been able to fly, and would have been vulnerable to predators until she was dry enough to fly. I'm not saying that never happens, just that if it does, it puts the owl in a very dangerous position.

Scientists learn as they build upon the data that comes in from reputable sources - from documented observation. One great thing about the internet, and indeed one of the original reasons for the internet, is the sharing of date, including video like the one we've been seeing with the barn owl waiting until the sprinklers come on and then obviously enjoying the feel of the sprinkles on his/her body. Wesley loved that feeling and would hang upside down on the shower rod while I threw handfuls of water at him so that it felt just like a sprinkler. He'd turn this way and that, making each part of his body available to the water.. The body language of the owl in the video is just like Wesley's when he was getting showered.

When I was at the Aerospace Corporation, the internet (then called Arpanet) had only some 21 sites. All I had to do whenever a new site was added was reprint the one page that had the list on it! The only sites were military and a few educational institutions like Caltech, MIT, Berkeley (where UNIX was developed in part), and Purdue. Others started coming online later, and the big excitement was ftp - the file transfer protocol, which allowed scientists to send each other their data. Then the human genome project was born at some point and the internet had a lot to do with all the file sharing needed for that. Eventually, though, the internet was made available to the public. A concept called "hypercard" which morphed into html, allowed a much better human interface that made it possible to navigate without having to be a programmer of some kind to use the computer!

But I digress. I am amazed at how we can now share such awesome experiences as watching an owl bathe or watching Molly and McGee raise their babies. One of the moderators on theowlbox site shared a stream where I in California could watch a stork in Holland on her nest! wow!

Ok, back to the owls.

The other big question lately is, "Is Molly going out to hunt?" or "Will Molly leave the babies and go hunt if something happens to McGee?"

I have watched a lot of owl nests in the wild and have not seen the mother go out to hunt. But that doesn't mean it doesn't or can't happen. I suspect that most of the nests I've watched have been during a good season with an experienced pair of barn owls. In this case, Molly seems to be a first time mom. And it appears that other scientists have seen the mother go out to hunt, or have assumed she was going out to hunt when she left and came back with food. So I have to say that she may be going out to hunt, or she may be going out and getting prey directly from McGee. The male owl sometimes will cache food outside the nest as well, and maybe she is getting that.

We won't know if this particular female is hunting for sure until we see her in the act of capturing prey for the babies, but there is literature that says the females will go out to hunt for prey..

I have been trying to stay pure to my own actual observations, and to what I've been told at Caltech but that is not the entire body of understanding that's out there. I've always been very cautious to just quote articles because I've seen so much misinformation and assumption. That's why I've been hesitant to try to say she will hunt. But I must conclude that she may very well hunt.

To some people, it might seem silly that I am so cautious not to say something might happen that I've never seen happen, but that's really the standard when a scientist is writing a paper, for example. But I have to then remind myself that I'm not writing a paper about my own observations here, I am trying to answer questions that may include things I've never observed. WHEW!

About the prey McGee is bringing in - this is a perfect picture of how Barn Owls are so adaptive. Although in most studies they rely entirely upon voles and mice for 97% of their diet, they are not going to pass up prey that's already in front of them. If he can catch a baby rabbit, he's not going to say, "no no! I must hold out for a mouse! Even though the babies are hungry, I must only feed them mice, even if I don't see any mice but I see tons of baby rabbits!".

No, he's a survivor and he'll go for the baby rabbits! Another prey item that a lot of California barn owls are seen to be hunting are gophers.

There is such a thing as cultures or differences from one group of birds to another - where they take different prey and even sometimes flocks that have different group attitudes from one group to the other. Owls learn from their parents, so issues like what prey to hunt is taught, and these differences, which can be regional, are handed down from one generation to another.

About being wrong - All scientists can do is tell you what they've observed and what might happen. A great example is the earthquake on Easter morning here on the West coast. Inevitably, the press races to Caltech to ask their experts what's going to happen next, what does this mean, what fault was the earthquake on, what can we expect now?

And the Caltech spokesperson always says that this may be a foreshock to something bigger and it may trigger separate earthquakes as well as aftershocks, which are two different things. And most of the time there is no bigger earthquake, so it was NOT a foreshock to a bigger earthquake. Do we then lambast them and say, "They were wrong! How COULD they! They are not scientists!" No, because they are telling us only that they've observed that sometimes a big quake (or small one) can be a foreshock to a bigger one. It does not mean that this IS a foreshock.

All science can really do is tell us what has been observed so far at this time. The assumptions and even declarations of science change constantly as new data comes in.

For example, the theory of a large extinction of dinosaurs is now changing! A lot of paleontologists are now saying that we were wrong - there was no mass extinction of dinosaurs! They're saying now that dinosaurs are still among us, evolved into birds and reptiles. Of course, there are still those who hold on to the mass extinction theory, and you certainly still see that on TV as being "the truth", but new data says otherwise. So there are now two camps, each of which are adamant that their theory is the correct theory. That happens all the time in science until things finally become more clear with more and more data.

The public is told that 'science' knows it all. But 'science' is nothing more than the observations of people who specialize in observing certain aspects of the world around us. Everyone who observes can contribute to the larger body of knowledge!

So by us observing Molly and McGee, we are doing a lot of what scientist DO and the documentation of every owl box observed contributes to the larger knowledge.

Best of all, by doing what we're doing, we are learning what it's like to DO science. This IS biology, what we're doing. It's not all areas of biology, but it's one area. I love that this is showing kids that it's exciting to do science! It IS exciting. I've had a blast doing this all my adult life and couldn't have asked for a more interesting field to be a part of. Science is NOT boring!

So, MODs, you are becoming obsessed with an area of biology and are not wasting your time. You're also doing what man used to do all the time - being close to nature and connected with nature. This will change us and make us care more about what happens to the habitats of these amazing "others" with whom we share this beautiful green earth!


Roni said...

Stacey, thank you so much for taking the time to explain all this in detail! I wish everyone in the chat would come here and read it all!

whippy said...

I agree with Roni totally. No need to repeat it.

You are wonderful to take time to help us all understand and appreciate what we are seeing, right before our eyes, thanks to the Royal family.

Take care of yourself. Wish I was on the coast so I could come to your event the 24th. Just a tad too far for me to travel :)

Anonymous said...

Such a thoughtful explanation of science. The same with weather forecasters. A lot of it is based on observation and historical data. But like animals, the weather can still seem like it has a mind of its own.

Teresa said...

I LOVE reading your blog, just as much as I loved reading your book (and am enjoying it again). You have such a great way of explaining things and you DO make science fun. Thanks for taking the time to answer all the questions and helping the rest of us understand this wonderful, mysterious creation.

Kathlene said...

just found your blog today and going through each entry.
Thank you ever so much!

I think everyone interested in watching other birds should read this as well. You see things in a different light when you have first hand experience to gather from.

Bill Brissette said...

I never knew that owls were'nt waterproof, and that it was related to their silent flight ability. Thanks, I'm going to share this info.