Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Were people overreacting when they ask about Wesley's welfare...

Here's the discussion:

Some people have ASKED, "How is Wesley doing?"
Other people think that means they are panicking. Accusing them of thinking that baby Wesley is near death. I don't think that's what they're saying. I think they're asking, "What will this mean, if Molly has left the babies to fend for themselves, eating-wise, when Wesley still can't rip up his food?"

So, I don't think people were saying he was starving - well there were a few who thought that, but the majority of people were wondering about what would happen to him if Molly didn't come back to roost with the babies anymore. It was a valid question! It was the elephant in the room. The reason I called it that is that people seem to be immediately jumped on, as if they've committed a sin by "being negative". It's as if there's a fear of there being anything said that might hint that the outcome would be anything less than disneyesque.

It's kind of hard to explain this but I'll try. When I'm talking about the owls, I'm really looking at it as objectively as I can, comparing what I'm seeing to what I've seen in the many other nests I've observed. I don't pretend to be able to psychically predict every move the owls will make because the truth is that they are all individuals! (I'm not! - That's an obscure reference to The Life of Brian by Monty Python). Anyway...they are not automotons that can be put into little slots so that we know that by day X, the mother will absolutely do Y. The real situation is that by day X, I've seen a good majority of mothers doing Y, but I've also seen mothers who do A, B, and even (oh the shock) C!

So I'll try to answer by saying what I think is "most likely" based on other situations. That's all an ethologist can do.

At least I know I'm in good company. For years and years and years, Jane Goodall thought the chimpanzees were our peaceful ancestors, innocent and devoid of the cruelty and tendency for war that we humans have.

The book in which she discusses the event that changed her mind is called The End of Innocence. She means HER innocence.

After years and years and years of study, she saw a change in the chimp groups. Two groups formed and began to have skirmishes along the borders of their territories. Things escalated, alliances were formed, atrocities were committed that she could never, in her wildest dreams, have imagined. It was a very painful time for her and for the chimps.

Before all of this, she would have answered questions very differently than she did after all of this. I'm NOT comparing myself to Jane Goodall (someone on the chat said, "Stacey compares herself to Jane Goodall". Oh please. I'm not that deluded!), but I can use her experience as an example.

Even though she had more experience w/ chimps than anyone else in the world, years and years and years, she didn't know everything, but she still would have answered questions like, "Do chimps go to war" or "will the chimps form gangs and bully other chimps" or "will chimps kill other chimps just for the fun of killing" - she would have said "absolutely not" to those questions.

All any scientist can do is answer according to what has been discovered or observed up to that point by themselves or their colleagues. And, if there's a reference out there that says X, but the scientist has honestly not seen that to be true, and neither have her colleagues, she cannot just throw that away and say, "oh well then, that reference out there must be more valid than our research" until she has looked into that reference thoroughly and hopefully talked to the scientists who put that reference out there.

I refer you to the head of a large city zoo who is still, to this day, going on talk shows and announcing that owls hunt using echolocation like bats! No matter how many times he says it, it still isn't true. My mentor says, "He's not a scientist, Stacey, why do you even care?" I guess I actually care about the truth, even for NonScientists (as if we were some kind of cult. haha).

So, with all this in mind, when people ask, "What will happen to baby Wesley?" or "Is this premature for the mom to leave before he can rip up his own food?"...well YES, it IS premature. Not but much, mind you, but it's still premature. And the truth is that many of the youngest owls in nests do die, because they are the weakest and least developed. So if mom is timing her moves based on the development of her older owls, the littlest gets left behind and does die. It happens a LOT.

I'm not saying Wesley will die! In fact, as I've said before, he is least likely to die of any youngest owl I've ever seen, because he has a worldwide audience of people who care what happens to him! So...let me modify my statement to say that if he was not so popular, if he was not a celebrity, if he was in an obscure nest out in the wilderness, he might have been too weak to survive if he couldn't rip up his food or get prey small enough to swallow on a pretty regular basis, long enough for him to develop a little more and become strong enough to handle his prey.

That doesn't mean I think he doesn't look too good 10 hours after the mother leaves the nest! They're not THAT delicate after all. i'm talking about long term consequences in a normal wild box. When people ask me questions about owl behavior, I'm trying to answer according to what's most normal or most likely in the owls I/we have observed.

I have observed nests primarily along the foothills of the Angeles Crest range of mountains in California, and owls in and around La Costa, Carlsbad, and Valley Center. I'm sorry, but the nests I've observed just so happened to contain experienced females who stayed with their babies right through fledging. I don't know why that is so. It just IS. Maybe the years when I was owlwatching were excellent years for mice - because I also saw mostly mice being delivered by the male - it is true that in these cases the nest was near a field or fields that were dominated by mice, or a few were near malls or eating establishments that attracted mice during the night who came to eat the crumbs left on the ground by people who ate there during the day. So the owls were eating mice.

Obviously, owls will eat the prey that is available! They are not going to pass up edible prey because studies have said they mostly eat mice! They are going to eat what's available! Owls do not read scientific journals!

Biologists are constantly learning new things - making new discoveries. When a new discovery is made, it is celebrated. The biologist does not spend the time beating themselves up for not having observed that thing before, or for not having known that truth before now! No! They are thrilled to have observed something different! They pass around a bottle of champaigne - well they do at Caltech - and savor the moment! Then they get back to work.

As in all the sciences, biology is a study that follows endlessly branching questions. One question leads to another, which brings up another question, which branches out into a hundred more questions. This is the beauty of it! No one gets bored! I guarantee you that!

They just discovered a new species of deer in the jungles of Vietnam. Are you KIDDING ME? Even after years of war, that species had not been identified! They've found a whole bunch of new creatures in an area where an ice shelf melted. We will always learn new things and be amazed and thrilled.

It isn't wrong to be wrong. A hypothesis is just as important to disprove as to prove, after all.

So, yes, Wesley could be in trouble if his mom were to ignore the babies day after day after day. But she didn't. She went back to brood with them, which might mean that she will still tear up food for little Wesley. Or the parents might so happen to bring in more mice (which is what happened), increasing the chance that our little Wesley will swallow one whole and be very full. Remember, he does not have to eat his fill to survive and continue to grow. He just has to make it for a few more days to catch up with his siblings and he'll be ok.

If my answer to someone's question isn't what they wanted to hear, I cannot modify my answer to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. I have to answer to the best of my ability with the truth that I know about at the time I answer the question. I may learn something new later on that might change how I would answer that question, but I can only answer to what I know to be true now.

Jane Goodall has certainly changed her answers to questions about brutality and war, and even atrocities, among chimps. She's not ashamed that she didn't know. No one really knew in her case. Her observations changed everything. And she had to change her answers. But she never changed her answers to make people feel good because she is a scientist.

Again, I'm not comparing myself to Jane Goodall. But I DO admire Jane Goodall and learn from her through her example and her writings.

I hope I've cleared a few things up. Whew!

-Stacey

8 comments:

Ter-o-fla said...

Oh, my, I DO so look forward to reading your comments, Stacey! Very refreshing! Thank you again - and again! - for taking the time to do this!
Do the owls you have observed seem to have been disturbed by things going on near them?
Case in point: do you think, based on your previous experience, that it would unduly disturb the owls if there were to be more "branches" and things put up around that pole on which the owl-box is mounted?
(I must admit, I had never thought about how they fledged? Thanks for explaining that.)

Ter-o-fla said...

oh, just one more thing: do you ever feel like Alice at the teaparty? ;)
(no, I do not mean the modern version of "tea-party", but the one in Lewis Carroll's book)

Lynn said...

Thank u for sharing all of this with us, stacey! I saw the link they were sharing in the main chatroom last night of owlets fledging..:( That was so sad with them not being able to get back to the entrance of the box..
I think yesterday was a big learning experience for me all around. I have made so many friends through the chats at the owlbox, and feel as though you are one of those. I would even love to either have Carlos allow us to continue to chat here after the owls have fledged..maybe just one cam up to show different boxes for birds in his yard..? And have a place where we can all touch base day to day or as we can..since ...as strange as it seems ..we DO tend to make friends w/ people in chatrooms that we spend a lot of time communicating with! If Carlos felt that would be too much for him..then maybe even a private chat for members of the owlbox community somewhere else..and then they could meet back at the owlbox if Carlos has owl activity again next year. Maybe we will even be blessed with a 2nd brood this year!
Thank you so much again Stacey for contributing what you do.
Lynn

Allison said...

I think you are right, Wesley will definitely be rescued if need be, and I think watching this nest is a good reminder that in the wild, not all babies do make it. In fact, in some types of raptors, the older sibling kills the younger. I was watching a program on bald eagles on Nature, and it was questionable whether the second chick would make it because the first picked on him and took all the food, and the adults did not intervene. Fortunately, the baby did make it (and I believe she was even the first one to fly).

I have been wondering about Owliver and Owlivia's babies, because they have so many. How common is it for barn owls to successfully fledge 5 chicks? The most great horned owl chicks I've seen fledge is 3, and the most Cooper's hawks is 4, but of course I have limited experience.

I've watched young Cooper's hawks fledge, and they start by climging in the nest tree, then hopping to neighboring trees, then flying short distances. They get good at flying long before they get good at landing! I've never gotten to see a young Great Horned owl fly - they disappear into the trees before that stage, and they don't carry on making noise during the day like the young hawks, who have a begging call and a high pitched baby version of their parents kek kek noise, so once they've left the nest tree I often can't find them.

Anyway, thank you again for doing this blog. Your comments are always interesting, and I'm learning a lot about barn owls. I wish I could attend your book signing.

poster said...

In all respect, Tom (the one who built the owl box) was in an overflow chatroom and clearly stated to expect to see an owlet die within 24 hours. I was there and I saw the comment. I am not one of the chatters who believed everything was fine when Molly left and Wesley could not eat food. I have always been cautiously optimistic about how this would go. But Tom's comment seemed over the line and meant to incite people. I'm still trying to wrap my head around why he did it and I'm going to take any further comments he makes with a grain of salt now.

Starr Ranch has a cam on wild barn owlets as well and the youngest and weakest died. He was about the age Wesley is now so I think it's not unreasonable to discuss our fears when we're emotionally attached to the Royal owlets.

But to come into a chatroom and say "an owlet will die within 24 hours" was way over the line.

gcopelandrn said...

Stacey, thanks SO much for continuing to record your thoughts daily! I have not been able to look at theowlcam for two days because I could feel my blood pressure rising so much from anxiety about the fate of Wesley and the others. So, your blog has become a true lifeline of information for me. I hope that all of this will be happily resolved for the owlets and that everyone involved, including Carlos, will have gained knowledge that will shape future attempts to host and observe owl families.

I vividly remember reading Jane Goodall's heartrending account of the chimp aggression, and you chose a great example of how ethologists are continually surprised (although not always "delighted") at new observations.

I'm afraid that the prevailing "code" in the moderated chat room is somewhat...limited and simplistic. Many people simply do not think in a scientific way, and I think you have been correct in your analysis of the psychological factors involved.

I am so looking forward to meeting you on May 1!

Margo said...

So very sad to say that the littlest one in Olivia's crew passed :( They talk about it on the site and yeah...it made me cry because I just love them all and I do know it's life, but just to hear how tender she was...well, it's touching. Loss in any world, human or animal, it loss.

I think it speaks to your point though Stacey...but I am keeping the faith that little Wesley will be fine and Molly only loses the one non viable egg.

Wow. These owls are so VERY spiritual. Touched my soul for sure.

Thank you SO much Stacey for all your words of wisdom and truth!

Cybee said...

Good comments...so happily it appears Wesley got over the hump (weakling stage) and survived. Good to be informed of the potential risks....it is nature after all. I think we should be able to be honest about it on the owl box...I guess just not alarmist. ha...but so appreciate your input....and I do understand..I think it is the most intelligent people who when new experiences/data/events are observed, will likewise adjust their understanding as well....it is those who do not do so that we have to worry about. We all are always learning...from the babies to the experts. I have learned so much from you.