Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I'm out of town, sorry no blog until tomorrow afternoon..

Hi all!
I'm in a remote location w/ no internet. I came into Julian to quickly write to you all that I've been resting. I had allowed myself to become too exhausted, and as you know, I have to monitor my health very carefully. So I've had no access to the internet and have not followed events.
But I just read some comments and I must say that I've heard many references to how we scientists do not or have not done our work w/ "Wild owls" and that it's somehow groundbreaking to be watching "wild owls".

This is ludicrous and almost does not bear defending. Who thought up the whole idea of putting cameras in the nests of wild owls? Scientists have been doing it since cameras were invented.

And we have been watching wild owls and compiling data and deep understanding for ages and ages.

The problem w/ looking at other owl boxes in San Diego is that there is a group here that makes a huge profit on putting up owl boxes in the most ridiculous places like suburban areas, w/ a "guarantee" that there will be no more rodents. The entire wildlife community has been in an uproar about this for years because it's purely for profit and there is no accountability to the way the owls end up dying in the end when they fledge. By then, the homeowner who had the box "professionally" installed is out their 500 dollars. Or 900 if they had a camera put in.

Just because someone makes a living at putting up owlboxes, does NOT mean they're an expert! Yes the feds are very aware of this and trying to decide what to do. They have not run up against this kind of for profit problem in the past and it's a problem that, believe me, is being hotly discussed behind closed doors among regulators!

in the meantime, Carlos has fallen prey to one of these companies, I'm told by people in the know. And he is in the unique position to remedy the sitaution.

I'm sure that Skyhunters, 619-445-6565 would be happy to help w/ the perch situation. Perches are not TOYS. They are what tree limbs are for. A box on a pole ia not a natural environment and owls are not able to think ahead to the fledging process because it would not be natural to find such perfect nesting spot unless it were in a tree, for the last several million years.

I don't know about the rest cuz I didn't hear what Carlos said so I'll leave that to whoever did hear it.

I'll be back tomorrow w/ a real post. Please make sure to keep agitating for the right thing to be done!

Friday, April 23, 2010

The death of 2 of Owlivia's babies

I am grieving along with everyone else about the death of these two precious little ones. Many people have asked for my opinion and here it is :

It's possible the two littlest ones were not getting enough to eat. Owlivia and Owliver were not bringing in as much prey as Molly and McGee, and they had one more baby to feed. If there isn't quite enough food, the littlest ones do weaken and die. The food is not distributed equally, as the first born and strongest baby is the most aggressive and gets the majority of the food, the second born is the second largest and therefore second most aggressive and gets the second largest portion and on down. If hunting is excellent, they all eat their fill. But if it's not excellent, the smallest and least aggressive babies get the smallest amount to eat, or nothing at all.

Without a necropsy, we won't know what really happened and can only speculate, but this is one of the main possibilities.

The other main possibility is the number one killer of owls, which is rodent poison. People put out poison for rodents, the rodents eat it, and then they go around with the poison in their systems for a little while before they die. During this time they are very easy to catch because of the effect of the poison. They are not surviving and running from predators, they are dying. So they're super attractive to a predator as an easy meal. So the predator catches and eats the poisoned rodent, and feeds it to the babies, and dies. Or the babies die.

It's possible that one of the prey items brought in was carrying poison and that the poison got fed to those two babies. I was worried that if this was the case, all the babies would die or the mother would die...ARG! I didn't sleep well last night. I'm sure a lot of people didn't!

But here we are 24 hours later and no one else has died. This is excellent news!

I'm not in touch w/ the people who have the owlbox, but I heard they were working w/ wildlife experts from project wildlife. If so, maybe they removed the items in the pantry just in case they were poisoned. I don't know.

I don't even know if it was poison.

Still, it really brings the point home about how delicate the food chain is, and how when we mess with it, we affect not just the rodents (in this case) but every animal that might eat that rodent. And this during nesting season, in the spring! It should be against the law.

Maybe this episode has made people more aware of the consequences of putting out poison.

I have friends who live out in the country in a very porous house, who are inundated w/ mice every year. So they put in those mouse traps that catch the mice, flip them unhurt into a holding area, then catch the next mouse, etc. By morning there might be 30 mice in the trap. Then my friends take the trap and drive out further into the country and let the mice go in a field where they can feed the wildlife instead of just dying in their house.

They do this every morning and they feel good about it and there are no poisons in their house.

They also have some excellent mouser cats in the house and barn who thrive on all those mice. It's a win win situation. People have managed to live for thousands of years with mice and have still managed to bring in crops, store crops...mostly...and haven't had to poison the world around them to do so. We can certainly do the same. Or are we more stupid than our ancestors?

I think we're more impatient than our ancestors and have developed a sense of entitlement that says, " I should not have to deal with any inconvenience whatsoever, so if that means poisoning the environment for my immediate gratification, then so be it, because there is nothing in this earth more important than my immediate and personal gratification." haha. I hope we haven't gone that far!

I do passionately hope that this will bring more awareness and help people to care!

In the meantime, I do grieve for those precious baby owls and hope and pray that the rest of the owls we've come to love will thrive in excellent health and go on to live long, happy lives!


YES! Carlos is looking into how to put up a fledging area!

I just read the comment section from the last post, and am told that Carlos' wife, Donna, has been reading the blog! WOW! HI Donna!

And I've been told that Carlos is going to install a perch system for the owlets to fledge to. This would be groundbreaking and might change the way people install owl boxes! I'm thrilled.

I was also given other links to other pictures of the box. It's true there are trees, but they are too low, in my humble opinion.

Here is the link and part of one reader's comments:
ou can see the layout of the new fence, the owlbox, the nearby tree, and the now 2 ladders (one of which the parent owls are using as a perch) in this video news story by cbs8:

"Owl Cam fans frantic because Molly is Missing"
If you go forward to time 1:42 of 3:22 in the video - and pause it - you'll get a better sense of the Fledging area. The owlets may enjoy the new fence and the ladders.

I do agree that they will probably use the new fence and the ladders in their flight training. But they also need something higher up.

So I'm very glad to hear that Carlos is going to build some fledging areas! This is awesome news! I had no idea they were even reading the blog, but I did know that they are out consulting w/ experts because he said he'd been surveying parks and habitats and working on the idea of putting up boxes all over, to provide homes for not only owls, but other birds. So I figured he'd be on a high learning curve with this, which, by the way, is a lot more than most people would ever do after having an owlbox put up in their yard. I admire Carlos' drive to learn and explore and grow.

As a side effect of this, it keeps a person young to always be involved in new adventures.

I do think that he ought to consult with wildlife experts on this one, since he's going to have to do some constructing while the owls are in the nest.

I know that wildlife people are quite eager to help, and that wildlife centers have a lot of experience constructing their own flight areas. I would urge him to bring in someone like that - who actually has built wildlife center flight cages for rehabilitating baby owls.

I'm picturing a structure, maybe in a sort of triangle, for support, that he could build elsewhere then roll up to the site and slip off of the wheels to leave it there. That way he wouldn't have to be constructing right next to the box.

What I've seen is what I described before, with some 2/4s covered w/ astroturf, parallel to and at the same height as the box opening - right across from the door so they can hop out the door onto the perch, about 3 feet away from the door.

They do also need a piece to climb up for when they take test flights and those flights end on the ground. At first they won't be flying, but will be just hopping w/ lots of flapping. But eventually they'll go on longer flights that end on the ground, and will need to climb back up.

I've seen where people have taken a long tree branch and put that at an angle from ground to perch, and secured to the perch.

I think this structure could be portable yet sturdy if he used a triangular base somehow.

I'm not an architect, nor have I ever built a perching system out in the open. What people in wildlife centers do is run the 2x4s across from wall to wall, so it's easier for them to make the setup.

BUT, I also know people who've been doing this for 25 years or more and would be more than happy to advise him, because truly they are more interested in seeing owls thrive in the wild than they are in having to take in yet another clutch of baby barn owls or any other baby animals.

Baby season is a nightmare in wildlife centers. It SOUNDS fun but it's just so crazy and so frantic that there's no time to enjoy the babies themselves. It's a race for survival that leaves everyone feeling like they've just been in a kind of war zone.

So they would love to see the public getting involved in preventing having to take babies to wildlife centers!

I would bet, though I haven't asked her directly, that the director of Skyhunters would be more than eager to help. She has a network of people all over San Diego, in Valley Center and the areas of N. County, who are long time experts, who know who to go to for solving these construction issues and conundrums. And believe me, everyone who works w/ wild creatures has these kinds of issues to worry about.

How do you enclose coyotes, for example? They'll dig right under a fence. Well, I recently visited a wildlife center in the NW that digss 6 feet down all the way around the fence and sinks a chain link fence 6 feet into the ground, going up to 10 or more above the ground, and bending inward at the top cuz coyotes can even climb some fences.

I'd bet you that the first time wildlife centers started working w/ coyotes, they didnt' know this and had all kinds of premature escapes! So we all learn by doing or by consulting w/ someone else who has learned by doing.

Perhaps this will lead to a new design in owl boxes which includes a branch to fledge to and one to climb up, as one commenter pointed out.

Now, in response to the reader who said I shouldn't talk about "negative" or "upsetting" possiblities, i really do not have a perspective that says, "Oh this is upsetting" Or "this is not upsetting" in the sense that for me, learning and understanding what IS, is what I care about most passionately.

When you're in a biology class, you don't learn only happy thoughts. You are learning about how organisms survive. By what mechanism do they handle the problems that come up, so that they survive to carry on their genes through their progeny?

Those solutions can be physiological: The liver and kidneys and intestines must handle toxins that are the result of metabolism, or the system will poison itself, for example. Do we not discuss the poisonous results of metabolism because it's negative to say that the result of our metabolic process is urea and ammonia and other substances that would be toxic if left to build up in our bloodsream? It has never even crossed my mind that it's negative! It is just what IS. And our bodies are set up to handle those toxins and excrete them. I've taken whole units on how different organisms excrete toxins - from fish and their gills and all those systems, to worms, to every imagineable creature and how he/she handles the toxic output of metabolism.

How does the skeleton balance and handle load? We talk about the forces that the skeleton must be prepared to withstand in terms of pounds per square inch, such as when a large cat leaps down off a tree branch. How do the muscles and skeleton absorb the shock? Do we decide that discussing the "shock" is kinda too tough to talk about?

To me, the miracle is that these problems are solved at all!

And to me, there is no difference between discussing the problems organisms face internally and the issues they must solve externally.

Birds must solve the problem of having to learn to use their wings. And it's a learning process for them. They aren't born knowing how those wings work, and it's very awkward for them to learn. It's especially awkward, in my humble opinion, for owls.

But if you haven't spent your life studying owls or watching them fledge, how would you know the exact mechanism by which they fledge? You wouldn't. You would probably think they fledge just like the sparrows in your backyard, who tumble to the ground unhurt, hide in a bush, and take little hoppy flights along the ground. Sparrows are tiny and light and this works for them.

Owls are awkward during adolescence and they just act more like dinosaurs trying to learn to fly. They don't hop lightly on the ground, they gallumph along on the ground when they're on it. They have big heads and big talons and there's just an awful lot to coordinate.

Once they do figure it out, they are poetry in motion. Absolute beauty and wisdom in the sky.

But they have to get from here to there.

So when I discuss the problems they might face, I really see them not so much as problems, but as challenges. And, since I know how they usually handle those challenges, I would love to see us humans offering them the kind of habitat that allows them to overcome those challenges in the manner to which they've adapted over the millions of years.

So to me, that's a very positive thing. If we come out of this having learned a new way to set up owlboxes in a way that does a lot more to ensure the ultimate success of the clutch, then huge progress has been done.

Carlos may end up being the one who sets up a groudbreaking new approach to owlboxes. Because many companies that put up owlboxes do not do anything to consider the actual owls themselves and how they fledge, etc They just put an owlbox on a stick and leave it at that.

The point made that owls are not adapted to living in owlboxes was well put. They are hardwired to search for nice sized hollow spots, because until recently in history, those spots were in hollow trees.

As we've pointed out before, there are many owl species that do not adapt to change and who are decimated by what we might think of as small changes in their habitat - like the spotted owl. The spotted owl must have a very intricate set of factors, all present together, to survive. Take away one of those factors, and the owl cannot breed or nest. That's why they're so endangered.

But with the lovely barn owl, we do have a good chance to provide them with alternative habitats like the owl boxes, and to ensure a good fledge, so that they will not become endangered as long as there are unpoisoned rodents for them to eat! That's GOOD news, not bad news!

Well, that's it for now. I've got to get ready for tomorrow, when I'm going to meet several of you in Julian! I can't wait to meet you. PLEASE introduce yourselves and tell me you read the blog or that you know me from the owl box so I know who I'm meeting! This will be fun.

I talked to people in Julian today and they said there's snow on the ground but that it has melted enough so that the roads are clear and you don't need chains. I'm taking chains just in case it changes, but they say it's just beautiful up there, but dress warmly. I dress in layers in that kind of cold because I often get too hot indoors when it's cold outside.

See some of you tomorrow!


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why I'm optimistic that Carlos will install a perch for the babies to fledge to...

Clearly, there is NOTHING for the owlets to jump to. There needs to be a substantial branch within 3 feet of the door of the perch, at the same HEIGHT of the door of the box. This is not the case, yet. Yes, I'm concerned, but I do think Carlos is honestly trying to learn, and that he is becoming educated as he goes along.

It's not Carlos' fault that the box is not installed correctly. He hired a "professional" who should have had the sense to put the box 1) in a tree or at least within the shade of a tree, and 2) in a position such that there are multiple branches parallel to the box's door, for the owls to fly to.

Since Carlos intends to install boxes all over the county in parks and nature areas, he is very interested in learning the right ways to do these things. He just hasn't had the right people involved with putting the box up.

There are people who go into business doing owl boxes as a method of rodent control, who don't know what they're doing, or don't care. I know nothing about the details of how this box got where it got, other than that he did hire a local professional.

But since then, he's been seeking to learn more, so I am very optimistic that he will install some kind of branch, about 3 feet in front of the door, at the same height as the door, very soon. The babies won't fledge until May 14 at the earliest (now watch, I'll be "wrong" and people will say I don't know what I'm doing. haha. Ok so I'll say that in most cases, that would be the target date, but that these guys might fledge early. How's that? lol).

He did say he's been going to parks and looking at other situations. He could go to any raptor center and see the way they put in these perches.

Here's how: They put up a long 2x4 for the owls to land on, wrapped with astroturf (the 2x4, not the owls). They secure the astroturf so it doesn't slide around. This gives the owls a way to grip onto the perch.

He'd have to construct something to hold the perch up and brace it, but I'm sure there are lots of people who know how to do this kind of thing.

He could make a call to skyhunters and ask them to consult, for example. Skyhunters is involved with building flight cages for eagles, even, and with putting caps on live electrical wires all over San Diego, to prevent birds from being electrocuted. I'm sure they could refer him to the right people who'd be very happy to build a proper fledging setup around his box - without even disturbing the owls.

Carlos is good at learning new businesses and skills - if you've looked at his other webpages, he's got amazing photography of butterflies, flowers, cityscapes like towns in England and all over America, he's learned the real estate investment business and has written a book about how to become a millioinaire through real estate, he's a landlord of god knows how many properties, he was in the navy - in other words he's a very well rounded guy who has learned a huge variety of skills, so he can easily learn about owl habitats.

And a proper barn owl habitat includes somewhere to fledge!

This is why I'm optimistic.

We can see from the picture that, right now, there is no adequate place to fly to. The box stands alone far above any trees, and even the trees that are there do not have adequate perching areas.

He will figure all this out. If anyone can figure it out, he can! Everyone has to go through a learning curve in every new area of life. It's normal, and it keeps a person young to keep learning new things. I don't criticize people for not automatically knowing about every possible subject on this earth - it's not possible to do so.

I applaud those who undertake new projects and are open to learning, and who open themselves up to experts and ask questions, who are willing to continue to learn and adapt and grow.

This is one of those situations, and I think Carlos is very serious about learning everything he can about this. So....he will install proper perches, I'm sure, in time for the babies to fledge.

I'm sure he does not want this very public journey to end in disaster, especially with so many schoolchildren inovlved.

I remember a case in which schoolchildren were very involved in watching the rehabilitation of a baby seal who had been found starving on the beach. He was nursed back to health and the kids followed his progress every step of the way.

Finally the big day came for the release of the seal. Some classes actually went out to watch, while others were able to see the action on some kind of closed circuit TV setup. The seal was released with great fanfare. Less than a minute later, a killer whale rose up and ate the seal. What a disaster! Horrors! Those poor kids!

I'm sure Carlos is not going to let something like that happen. He cares about this little owl family just like we all do. One can't help but fall in love with these little characters, and with the beautiful Molly and McGee!


PS: I'm not writing this so that people will become frantic! I'm writing this because I think that, even though the box is not properly installed at the moment, I think it will be remedied well in time for the fledging. So, please refrain from hysteria. I personally doubt that people are that hysterical, but I keep being told that they are and that I should only say happy happy things. I think this IS a happy thing - these owls have so many people who care about their welfare that they can't help but be well accomodated and cared for! So be happy. NOW!...SMILE! or else! ;-)

Is the owl box next to tree branches to which the babies can hop or fly?

There's been a lot of questions about the placement of the owl box, because when the babies start to fledge, they will do so in a process. Owl babies do not fledge all at once as one event the way songbirds do. First, they don't fledge to the ground like songbirds. Instead, they begin to hop from the nest to a nearby branch, then back again, over and over again. They can't fly yet, but they begin to exercise their wings by flapping them very hard while holding tight to a tree branch, and they hop back and forth.

Eventually, this hopping starts to include a little bit of lift, as if flying or gliding, but then there's the safety of nearby tree branches upon which to land. By doing this, they practice using their wings and start to learn what happens when they flap their wings this way or that, or the other way. They learn to stop in midair and float down to to the branch like a hellicopter. They learn to strike the branch w/ their talons. They learn all kinds of landing techniques.

Also, they will exercise their leg and wing muscles by powering up tree trunks, hooking their talons into the bark and flapping hard, using their powerful thigh muscles to literally walk up the tree trunk.

For this reason, it's advised that if you put up an owlbox, you need to put it up next to or even in a tree so that the owlets can fledge properly.

If the owlbox is not set up that way, the babies will fall to the ground when they leave the box, breaking wings and legs. Oh, was I "wrong" to say that? Lest anyone be concerned? Well, I can't lie, can I?

But we have been told that the owl box IS next to a tree and that there ARE branches right next to the box for the owls to jump back and forth to, right parallel with the opening of the box. What a relief.

Well, heck, you be the judge. Above is a picture of the owl box, which I got off of one of Carlos' websites! Let the debate end here!


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!


Bellingham, WA Event! Details as promised!

Here are the contents of the flyer that went out about my event in Bellingham, WA. I hope those of you who are near there can come! Notice that the event on Sunday, May 2 is FREE and does NOT require a reservation! I hope to meet you there! Please bring your books to have me sign, or you can get a book there and have me sign it. Also, make sure you introduce yourself!

I'm looking forward to this!


Meet the Author: STACEY O’BRIEN

Northwest Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
is proud to offer

an intimate catered evening lecture and book signing
with “Wesley The Owl” author Stacey O’Brien
Saturday, May 1st from 6-9 pm
Corona Court Clubhouse, 4780 Corona Court, in Bellingham, WA.
$40 per person, space is limited to 50 people
Heavy hors d'oeuvres and wine will be served
Reservations Required: Brian at (360) 220-6234 or bdgenge69@yahoo.com

Then again on Sunday, May 2nd from 2:30–4:30 pm
at Fairhaven Library, 1117 12th Street Bellingham
Slide show and book signing (for adults), plus owl education and crafts for the kids!
No reservations required – this event is free, with an optional $5 donation to benefit NWRC

Wesley the Owl is a love story that begins when a young, compassionate biologist adopts a baby bird-and unknowingly embarks on a relationship that will last almost two decades. Written with the same heartwarming sentiment that made the memoirs Marley and Me and Chosen by a Horse runaway bestsellers, biologist and barn owl expert O'Brien chronicles her rescue of an adorable, abandoned baby barn owl - and their astonishing and unprecedented nineteen-year life together.
By turns playful and informative, Wesley the Owl is a surprising story of a complex non-human being capable of reason, communication, love, and loyalty--it is sure to be cherished by animal lovers everywhere.
STACEY O'BRIEN is a biologist, wildlife rescuer, and animal rehabilitation expert specializing in owl research. She lives in California.
These events are sponsored by Northwest Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
Check us out online at www.northwestwildlife.org.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Additional comments about baby Wesley

I just want to point out a few addendums to the post below...I did not personally see Wesley take food out of Max's beak. I was told that the picture was of him doing so, but I don't really know. Apparently some people, who I regard as very experienced, only saw them touch beaks, but did not see the transfer of food. So I may be wrong that he got food out of Max. I also saw Wesley struggling mightily to swallow a partial mouse, but he kept trying to swallow from the back, which doesn't work. The feet get in the way and get caught on the sides of the owl's mouth and he can never get the mouse down. And Wesley didn't. He hasn't learned to position the mouse so that he's swallowing it headfirst. It was so frustrating to watch.

So now I'm not so sure that he's going to get enough to eat. But as I said earlier, he will be rescued by the wildlife people if he starts to fail. Keep in mind - these owls belong to the Federal Government, for their own protection, just like the national parks and tidepools. They are not under the jurisdiction of private citizens.

I've also been told by the maker and installer of the box that the tree nearby is inadequate for fledging owlets. This is easily remedied by Carlos putting up a solid landing perch a few feet away from the porch for the babies to fly to, and there's time to put that in. No need to panic here.

Below the posts, I listed some of my favorite animal books for you to consider. Enjoy!


Why Baby Wesley should be ok.

Molly's littlest owlet is named Wesley, after Carlos' family members and my Wesley. What a coincidence, really.

I had thought that the baby might be able to grab scraps from the beaks of big brothers and sisters once they started ripping up the prey items, and it turns out he's doing just that very thing, with no protest from the siblings. Max seems to be a particularly mellow fellow, and doesn't fuss when little Wesley grabs a bite right out of his beak. While I'd be very surprised if Max were socially developed enough to feel a fatherly or motherly responsibility to feed Wesley (siblings compete for food), he is certainly affectionate and friendly with his siblings, and not overly competitive. I saw Wesley sleeping under Max's wing the other day. Max probably didn't care where Wesley was in the huddle, but the point is that Wesley was able to use MAX as a wing under which to feel safe.

In the same way, although Max may not be purposely feeding Wesley, the fact that he doesn't fight him allows Wesley to go ahead and act as if Max WAS feeding him, and just take the tidbits right out of Max's beak!

I had said that once the prey was "unzipped", Wesley could eat the insides much more easily, or eat a left over portion of bigger prey. Ie. he could swallow a partial gopher whole, once it's been partially eaten.

And finally, he will be ok because if he really were starving and weakening, people would go crazy with worry and the media would get involved and this little owlet would be the champion of a rescue rehab center somewhere, no doubt with his own paparazzi following his recovery, learning to hunt and fly, and finally, his release.

This little guy has no idea how many guardian angels he has! He has it better than any other owlet in the woods, so to speak. Even though they're not in the woods. ;-)

I was pondering today about the frantic worry and near meltdowns people have been having over the fate of these precious owls. Whenever you let your heart out to love someone so much, you are opening your heart to possible pain and disappointment. Does that mean to keep your heart closed? May it never be!

Another possibility is that it's very hard to feel like you cannot control anything about a situation. That's probably why some people are so terrified of flying - it's the not being able to control the situation that really scares them the most, I think. And with these owls, all we feel we can do is watch, and the helplessness of that gets to people.

We also tend to project our own issues onto the owls. If you feel afraid that you can't keep your own children safe from the big bad world, and if they're pulling away from you, becoming more independent, your emotions might be compounded by the situation w/ Molly and the baby Wesley. All your worst fears about your child, which you cannot verbalize, come to the surface and are focused on these owls. Then the emotion rises to the surface and seems overly strong. That's because it's not JUST about the owls. It's about your own feelings of loss of control and fears that you can't protect those you love.

This isn't always true, and I'm certainly not a psychiatrist or psychologist! But for some of us there may be a ring of truth to some of what i'm saying. We all subjugate our feelings to one degree or another just so we can keep producing, working, getting up in the morning and carrying on. Life is scary and if we think too hard about it we might just end up curled in a little ball under the bed crying for our mom, or for God, or for medication. ;-)

So we subjugate our feelings, push them down, and carry on. Then something that's a little safer to worry about comes along. It's safer to worry about these owls than it is to worry that your husband might get in a crash cuz he's driving drunk, or your daughter might get hurt running w/ the wrong crowd, or your kids are doing drugs or endangering themselves, or maybe just going off to college and you can't be there for them to protect them from everything.

Suddenly it's safe to express these emotions if it's about the owls, because it's not quite so close to home.

We even do this with movies - the emotions of the movie act as as catharsis for feelings that were already there for us.

Anyway it's worth pondering. I'm not saying we can't truly care about the owls for the owls' sake! But if we're having meltdowns and really freaking out, it's worth asking ourselves if there's more to it than that.

By saying this I hope I"m not taking away from our love for these owls. I'm not saying we can't possibly love these owls that much, becauase we can. WE have a deep seated desire to care for the animals of this planet - to be stewards and protectors of them. We have lost some of this instinct through becoming industrialized and i think some of us are getting back in touch with our role as stewards, rather than conquerors, of nature And that's a GOOD THING!


Here's a pic of Wesley taking food out of Max's beak today:

A list of my current favorite books, as promised

This is not a complete list of my favorite books, but they are the ones that come to mind right now:
After you've read, Wesley the Owl, you might want to read more about animals from the point of view of an ethologist, biologist, or naturalist. Here are some of my all time favorites:

In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall - this is her first book and the best one to get yourself introduced to her life among the chimps. After that, there are many other books of hers to enjoy. I particularly like her two volumes of letters home about her life w/ the chimpanzees of Gombe, starting with
Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters: The Early Years

Never Cry Wolf - by Farley Mowat: He lived smack in the middle of a wolf pack for a year and a half, even eating a diet of mice to prove that a large mammal could do this. The wolves were living primarily off of mice, only occasionally hunting for caribou. A classic!

The Good Good Pig - by S y Montgomery. Great! She raised a pig for 14 years and had a marvelous relationship with him. Then read her other amazing books. (Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans; Journey of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest ; and many others from a female Indiana Jones crossed with Jane Goodall!)

Birdology: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur - by Sy Montgomery: Just out! I'm reading it now. Fantastic book!

An Eagle Named Freedom: My True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Jeff Guidry (in pre-order on Amazon, out May 4. Similar to my story of Wesley and me and our relationship).

The Mind of the Raven - by Berndt Heinrich: Amazing! About how ravens think, plan, make tools...readable too!
One Man's Owl - also Berndt Heinrich ( I didn't allow myself to read it until after I finished writing Wesley the Owl so I wouldn't inadvertantly quote him or anything).

Marc Bekoff's books. Hard to pick a favorite, but I think in this case, read WILD JUSTICE: REFLECTIONS ON EMPATHY, FAIR PLAY, AND MORALITY IN ANIMALS. Marc gets it. He's cofounder of the Jane Goodall Institute and has spent many years studying coyotes at Colorado University in Boulder.

Lynne Cox - Grayson: Lynne is a coldwater swimmer and one day while out in the ocean she was approached by a lost baby gray whale looking for his mom. She helps him find her! AMazing!

Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey by Joe Hutto

That Quail, Robert by Margaret A. Stanger

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg
The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots by Irene M. Pepperberg

Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog by Ted Kerasote

The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong by Donald E. Kroodsma (goes deeply into bird behavior and bird song)

Chosen by a horse: how a broken horse fixed a broken heart. by Susan Richards

Hawk Hill by Suzie Gilbert and Sylvia Long

Want something a little more hard core and scientific? Papers/essays by cognitive ethologists and other behavioral biology types: Try this: Animal Cognition in Nature: The Convergence of Psychology and Biology in Laboratory and Field (Hardcover)
~ R. P. Balda (Editor), I. M. Pepperberg (Editor), A. C. Kamil

Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior by Sara J. Shettleworth

Well, these ought to get you started after you've read Wesley the Owl! There's a ton of amazing stuff and adventure and love in these books!


ps" EVA! I'm translating the blog into Portuguese and Spanish. Do you read Portuguese? It's easier for me to translate into Portuguese which is why I asked...

The Big Molly Scare

For those who've been following The Owl Box and the plight of Molly and McGee, the owls who nest in the owl box in San Marcos, CA., yesterday was a day of worry. It was a day I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams - a day when the welfare of a barn owl was so important to people that it became the top news story in San DIego.

Having spent most of my adult life with a very obscure obsession - my intense love for barn owls - I thought I was a member of a small group of odd people who knew the great secret. The great secret was that barn owls are individual, fascinating, unpredictable to an extent, expressive, and that they can steal your heart away. This little club of misfits included some scientists, animal rehabbers and rescuers, and some birdwatchers and naturalists.

The rest of the world didn't even seem to see barn owls or care that they existed. This has changed.

The first inkling I had that barn owls were entering the public consciousness was when I went to speak at Book Passages in Marin County, San Francisco. I discovered that the city had a program called "Hungry Owl" (www.hungryowl.org) that provided owl boxes to people who had rodent problems with the promise that those people would not put out poison. Barn owls were now partnering with suburbanites to keep rodents under control, just as they've done for ages with farmers. Wow! But that was just one city.

Having a camera in an owlbox isn't new. My mentor at Caltech spent years studying a wild pair, just like Molly and McGee, and that was many years ago. Scientists have been doing these camera-and-microphone-in-owlbox studies for as long as there have been cameras. And yes, with wild owls, not captive or "chosen" owls.

And people have been putting owlboxes on the internet for years.

But for some reason, this owlbox attracted so many people that it has accumulated over 8 million hits. Not unique hits, but still those are huge numbers.

Everything was going along just fine in the box until yesterday, and all these owl watchers had become lulled into a sense that all would continue to go well. But then Molly seemed to have disappeared into the rain and did not come back to her babies yesterday.

I had seen hints that she was going to be an unusual mother. Owls are individuals, so you can't predict their behavior perfectly. All a person can do is say that it's more likely or less likely for her to do this or that. Molly was proving to be on the "that" end of the spectrum. She was restless. Most mother barn owls stay with their babies almost full time - this has been my experience in observing wild owl nests. They may go out to hunt, but I've seen many where the mother never leaves the babies for any reason until the babies finally leave the mother. Owlivia seems to be more of a normal barn owl mother in that way. But Molly couldn't wait to get back out there, even though it seemed that McGee was providing enough food.

I thought she was premature in leaving them alone in the box at all. And evidence that she was going off and bathing meant she might be taking inordinate risks for a mother with a nest full of babies. If she was bathing on the ground, she was making herself more vulnerable to predators than she ought to. She never got all that wet - just the tips of her outer feathers were soggy, but it was worrisome to me. Of course, she could have found a low tree that was being hit by sprinklers but it's not all that likely.

So I was already thinking she should stay with the babies and guard them! That's the barn owl mother's job. That's why she's 1/3 bigger than the male and is more likely to have the darker tummy and face feathers, looking like she's been rolled in dust. She can stay camoflauged and is big enough to defend the babies. Also, the female's personality is often much feistier than the male's, which makes sense if he needs to patiently hunt all night and she needs to be on guard at the nest.

But they do have their own minds and are highly intelligent, which means they will do what they want to do, not what we expect them to do.

I must say that there is literature that says that mother barn owls leave the nest when the babies are still in it, but if this does happen it's usually when the babies are older - when the can all stand up and rip their food into small pieces or easily handle whatever is brought in.

The littlest baby, Wesley, swallowed a mouse the night before Molly went AWOL, and Molly watched him very intently. Some have posited that this was the trigger that caused her to start leaving the nest. Maybe it was. i don't know. We need to be careful about putting cause and effect together when we really have no idea.

So...even with the signs in place that she was unusual, I was not prepared for the email I received yesterday evening from a friend: "Molly hasn't been seen since midnight last night! Everyone is in a panic and the owlbox chatroom is going crazy."

I thought she was probably dead. I hoped that McGee was ok. It occurred to me that they might have shared a meal of poisoned rodent and both died. What would happen to the babies? Should I call my friend at Skyhunters? What was Carlos going to do?

People saw me logged in and peppered me with questions. I first said maybe Molly was dead, but was told that I was upsetting the people and "don't say that". I said she MIGHT be dead. MIGHT BE! I mean, that was obvious, wasn't it? If it wasn't obvious, why was everyone in a tizzy?

But I also said maybe she got wet in the rain and took cover in a palm tree. Palm trees are great refuges from the rain. "But wouldn't she have come back to the babies by now?", people asked. Well...perhaps. Some barn owls will fly around during the day and some won't.

Was she injured on the ground?

I joined the vigil with everyone else. CBS interviewed Carlos and there were media people at his house. The Union Tribune reported on Molly's sudden disappearance.

Then, at around 8 or 8:15, the babies stood up and started their extreme begging and there was chaotic excitement in the nest box. The babies had sensed, probably heard, a parent! And then one of the parents landed on the box. Thank God they weren't abandoned! Who was it? It was McGee. He dippped in and fed them. Well thank God he is feeding them. He flew away and within seconds in came another owl with more food. Was it McGee again or Molly? Carlos was taking pictures from inside his house and he declared it to be Molly!

On the chat room people were crying and yelling "Yay" and "Thank God" - all in text form of course. One woman broke into crying so hard that her husband ran into the room asking what was wrong. Another yelled and woke up her sleeping husband. I was very happy, but hoping that it was really Molly and not McGee coming back, that we had seen.

Then time ticked by and it seemed that McGee was the one coming each time, since the owl or owls did not go into the box, but delivered the food at the door to the babies. What happened to Molly going into the box with her babies?

Little baby Wesley, who can't even stand up yet to hold his food down w/ his talons so he could rip it into bite sized pieces, got a mouse and tried and tried to position it for swallowing. But he just couldn't. He was too little. He could not manipulate the food And he was so, so hungry, making urgent baby begging sounds. It just killed me when he abandoned the mouse, still hungry and another baby finally ate it. Darn it Molly! You couldn't wait until your youngest was more ready? What was the big hurry?

Maybe she'll come back in and help Wesley eat. If Wesley is lucky, they'll deliver prey small enough for him to eat whole. But they might not! They'll hunt and get whatever they can get.

If she doesn't come back, I remain concerned about the littlest owlet. Maybe after the others have ripped something up, he can then pull some pieces off, but he's awfully weak and small and may not be able to do this. Molly had been doing it for him and feeding him.

So now we wait to see if she'll come in and help him, or if she really thinks they're all just fine without her.

All of this leads me to think that she's a new mother. This, and her behavior when she laid the first egg. She stared at the foreign object, walked around it, stared at it some more. She acted like it was the first time she had seen such a thing.

I'll be back after I see what Molly is doing....

Ok, she's not roosting w/ the babies. Although Wesley is no longer begging, he is continuing to worry the gopher in the back of the nest, and is not developed enough to either rip it apart or swallow it. It's too early for the mom to be out of the nest but they are individuals, not robots. They're not all the best parents, not all the most devoted. There is a range of behavior - this mother is too early, but the babies will PROBABLY survive anyway. The "best" barn owl mothers stay w/ the babies until the babies leave her. I'm a little worried about little Wesley (the youngest baby), but if the others rip the food up during the day, he will most likely get in some bites, or be able to swallow a partial rodent.

The mother does NOT leave the nest to "teach the babies independence". Her leaving the nest has no effect on their sense of independence! Babies from a nest where the mother stays until the end are well taught and just as independent as those who have a mother that leaves the nest when the babies are about 4 weeks old. I prefer that the mother stay with the babies. It's safer for the babies and covers contingencies like a baby not being able to rip up the food.

But these are not robots. They make their own decisions and this mother obviously wanted to spend time away from the babies even a week ago.

It will be interesting to watch.

(This will be translated into Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese later in the day for the foreign language versions of this site)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is Molly trying to teach the babies "independence" by staying away?

These pics were taken w/ the night camera and take careful scrutiny to see what I'm telling you about, I think.

1) Here is a picture of Wesley at the impossibly cute stage. These owlets are fast approaching that age, when the adult feathers are well developed underneath the baby fuzz and they look hopelessly cute!

2) In the second, Molly is relaxing on the left, with her right leg pulled up and her talons made into a loose fist. On the right side we see Max, I think, relaxing on his knees, with his left leg lifted ever so slightly and his talons made into a loose fist. He is either imitating mom or he is just starting to show the beginnings of adult behavior. I think it's pretty cute to see them side by side like that!

3) In the third picture, I had to take a bunch of screen shots to catch this because Max was trying very hard to stand on one leg and sleep like an adult. He kept losing his balance and having to put the foot back down, then he'd try again. Finally he was standing on one leg w/ his curled taloned foot up in the tummy fluff. Success!

Because of the camera angle you can't see their faces but you can still see a lot.

I've noticed a lot of questions along the line of the above: "Is Molly staying away from the nest to get the babies used to being on their own?"

No, she's not. They're way too young to be absorbing such a lesson, and mother barn owls aren't trying to teach this to their babies. The babies are, in truth, completely helpless and dependent upon her for protection and upon McGee for food. It's more likely that she sits outside the box because it's more comfortable and not as hot and crowded. If she doesn't have food to give them, it's no fun to be constantly hassled for food either.

In the same way, McGee is not going to pass up prey to try to manipulate Molly into doing "her share" of the hunting. No, they do not pass up perfectly good prey, with babies screaming their begging sound in the nest, just to manipulate their mate! This is not how barn owls think. They are all earnestness and sincerity in what they do, including hunting to provide for the babies. They cannot afford the kind of shenanigans that people might be willing to play.

When we talk about anthropomorphism, the real issue is this kind of projection of our own ways of thinking upon the animal. It's no longer so much an issue of projecting emotion upon them, because we now know that they have profound emotion (we even have live brain scan information, non-invasive, from the PET scan, to show the emotions at work in the animal). The danger, now, though, is this other kind of anthropomorphism where we project our own motives and manipulations onto the animals.

Since many barn owl mothers do not leave the nest, I conclude that Molly is leaving the nest for other reasons such as her own discomfort or restlessness or inexperience. And again, we do not know if she's hunting until we SEE her hunting.

There was some confusion tonight about the vocalizations of the babies. From now on, the babies will probably keep up an almost constant begging sound that the parents can hear from quite a distance. One nestwatcher said it sounds like people are scuba diving. Another thought an owl had a respiratory disease and was wheezing. Another thought a baby was trying to hiss a warning, over and over again.

This constant hiss/screech begging sound is due to hunger, and is to keep reinforcing the urgency of the hunt on the parents. As amazing as their hearing is, they can hear every nuance.

But tonight we also heard some new sounds from the babies. One was a bit of a chatter, almost the deDEEP deDEEP deDEEP sound that I associate with nesting, but not quite. Instead, it's like an exclamatory chatter that goes up in pitch and back down like an expression of excitement, which is what it is. It's a happy commentary on whatever is happening at the time, an is an exclamation of contentment and joy. Sure enough, though, when I explained it, people thought I was talking about the incessant begging sound. No, not at all. I was talking about a new sound that's just starting to occasionally pop up among the owlets, which is an adult sound really. The babies, they are a changin'.

Other changes are that the two oldest owlets, Max and Pattison, are starting to stand up. Wow what a difference that makes! They are nearly as tall as their mom, all of a sudden. Notice how filthy their knees are? They have rubbed off the feathers that used to be on those "knees" and have instead formed permanent callouses that they'll have for life there.

I also noticed that all of them scoot backwards on their "knees" as far as they can go before they poop. That keeps things along the edge of the box so that they don't have to sit in it, hopefully. The shredded pellets also help absorb the stuff. But still, the knees are very dirty.

The babies who are sitting on their "knees" are starting to curl up one foot into a fist as if they are practicing for the day when they'll be standing on one leg, with the other up and the talons folded into a fist. I got a pic of Molly standing on one foot sleeping, w/ an owlet sitting next to her holding his foot in the same manner as hers, only he's not standing. I also noticed that Max tried to stand on one leg to sleep but got jostled and couldn't keep his balance. He hasn't figured out how to cross his "knees" in back, creating a little platform upon which to sit.

I also noticed that now that Max is standing, little Wesley huddles under Max's wing just like he did w/ his mom. Max doesn't seem to mind. The owlets reassure themselves and each other with physical closeness when mom is out of the nest. At this age, my Wesley would not allow me to leave him alone under any circumstances, so having siblings really helps.

If you look closely at the babies now, you can see how the facial disks are shaping up. This is a good time to learn a bit about how the facial disks are put together. Notice how there are two distinct separate disks, with stiff bristled coming in to define the inside of each disk, with the nose coming down in between the two. The nose will eventually be covered with delightful, tiny brown feathers that kind of curl, and the facial disks will sometimes be expanded so as to hide the nose and the little brown feathers, and sometimes the owl will fold the facial disks so you can really see that nose w/ the brown feathers. The distinct separation of these disks allows the owl to hear in stereo.

When an adult owl is relaxed, the facial disks are relaxed and you see what looks like a brown stripe down the face, but really it's just the nose feathers in between the disks. When he's not relaxed, his facial disks are expanded, covering the brown nose feathers.

Barn owls can manipulate the tiny facial muscles to move individual feathers and groups of feathers to better focus sound and to make a myriad of facial expressions. They are possibly the most facially expressive of all birds because of this.

If you look closely, you will also see tons of pin feathers coming out of the tips of the wing and tail. They're amazing! The dark part is alive, with nerves and blood, capable of serious pain if pinched, surrounded by a keratin sheath. As the feather develops, the alive part of the pinfeather begins to retreat so that all that's left is the dead keratin sheath (our hair is made of keratin) with the newly developed feather inside. The owl pinches this white waxy substance off and the tip of a new feaher is revealed.

Meanwhile, the live part of the feather is still growing from the base. Those pinfeathers hurt the baby if you pinch or poke them, so they're pretty sensitive at this time. It's great fun to gently (GENTLY!) pinch the white part and reveal the magical new feather coming out the tip. All this is going on under the white baby down, so they still look like babies. And they're still very awkward, even falling on their faces every once in awhile.

But, they are going to come into that stage, which only lasts for a few days, where they'll look so cute it will seem impossible that any living being could be so cute! Max is almost there - he just needs his facial disks to get more distinct and filled in. When that happens, take as many screenshots as you possibly can, for there are few things on this earth as cute as a baby barn owl at this upcoming stage!

Sooo.. those were my thoughts today as I watched the owl box.

The need for more and more food will continue, since the babies are bigger and are actively growing, needing the equivalent of up to 6 mice/day in a perfect world, although they can live on less. Pray for the safety of the parents as they hunt, and for prosperity in the hunt, and the safety of the owlets in the nest box. I hope everything goes very smoothly as they grow.

Molly and McGee may start serious mating pretty soon in preparation for the next clutch.

Barn owls do not mate year round! There is a distinct mating season here, from March or so until September or so, depending on the owls and circumstances. Wesley first went into nesting mode in March, when he was 3 years old.

Remember to take your own screen shots! If you have a Mac, you hit the Mac control (labelled "command"), shift, 4
You get a little fraction thingy on the screen. hold down the mouse and move the fraction thingy ( a scientific term) to the to top edge of the window and drag the thing down diagnolly until you've selected the area you want in your picture. THEN you let go of the mouse and the picture is taken. It gets put on your desktop w/ the word "screenshot" and some numbers after it.

Enjoy making your own observations, and remember, this pair has their own personalities and another pair might do things very differently, like Owlivia and Owliver. The differences are distinct enough to cause a person to draw different conclusions in some cases. That's why scientists watch a LOT of barn owl nests, not just one.

Have a great day!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is the patio enough? Question from a reader.

Although the patio on the owl box in San Marcos is a good start, the owlets will need another strong perch to leap TO from that perch. This is how they learn to fly. They don't learn to fly by being pushed out of the nest and onto the ground like many songbirds do. When owls fledge, they need to be able to leap from tree branch to tree branch to the perch by their nest, back and forth. Owls do not belong on the ground at all.

I can't tell from the pictures I've seen whether or not there are solid branches nearby for the owlets to leap back and forth to, to learn to fly. If there aren't, perches can be installed nearby that take the place of strong branches. I'm sure that will be done before the owlets start to leave the box. They leave the box well before they can actually fly and begin exercising their wings by holding onto a branch and flapping with all their might, looking like they're trying to carry the branch away with them. This builds the strength in their wings that they'll need in order to fly. Then they start the hopping back and forth, learning through trial and error how to control those big wings to glide, stop, hover, and land without crashing. They learn in baby steps, so to speak.

Note that there are 3 posts today, so the 2 under this one are also new!


Friday, April 16, 2010

Answering a quick question - Does a male stop hunting to get the female to hunt? No.

I just want to clear up a little confusion. People have asked me if McGee deliberately fails to bring prey to the nest in order to get Molly to leave the nest and do her share. No! The male hunts like crazy, doing everything he can to provide for the nest of babies. It's just not that easy to hunt! The prey isn't sitting out there paying no attention. They scatter when there's an owl nearby and it only takes one alarm cry from one species for all the other species of animal to know there's a predator nearby. As clever as owls are, and as well adapted as they are, so are the rodents they seek.

Also, people have wondered if Molly leaves the nest to "teach the babies some independence". No. Many barn owls don't leave the babies at all, until they've truly moved off on their own, then she begins to hunt. Molly is one who does go out, but it isn't to teach the babies anything. She "should" be guarding the nest. The babies are pretty helpless and wouldn't learn anything if they were attacked while mama was gone.

We need to be careful not to impose our own manipulative ways of doing things onto the owls. It helps to ask yourself, "Does this help or hurt the survival of the babies." In this case, if she's truly hunting (she may just be taking handoffs from McGee - we don't know which she's doing), she is adding to the amount of food the babies are getting. There was one night in particular where the hunting was very sparse and she may have felt compelled. Or not. We don't know. On the other hand, if she's going far enough afield to hunt and doesn't pay attention to guarding the babies, the whole clan could be wiped out.

We don't know exactly what Molly does when she's out, but we do know that McGee is not deliberately passing up prey to manipulate Molly's behavior! A barn owl male w/ babies would not pass up prey without a good reason.

Note that Owlivia stays w/ her babies and she's also in the same town, San Marcos, but her mate seems to bring in more prey. I'm not absolutely sure cuz I haven't taken notes on Owlivia's nest but it does seem that he does a better job. Again, I think Molly and McGee are new parents and perhaps Owlivia and Owliver are experienced. We can't know everything about them, though if we aren't watching the behavior of the owl parents after they leave the nest.

The next blog under this one is also new! This is just a separate note to today's discussions.


Bonding and Mating - Are they the same? + more comments about barn owl bathing

Hi everyone!

There have been a lot of questions about whether or not Molly and McGee are still "bonding", since the babies are getting so big and we are not seeing Molly and McGee bonding anymore when he brings food in.

For one thing, it's very crowded in there with the babies getting so big, and for another, the babies are becoming more and more capable of mobbing dad themselves, so he almost enters the box at his own risk, with everyone ganging up on him at once trying to grab the food out of his mouth. It's just going to get more and more rowdy until it'll be downright riotous in the nest whenever he brings food.

When the babies start hopping back and forth to a perch outside the nest (which I hope will be there by the time they go out or they will not learn to fly but will just fall to the ground, helpless). Then the babies will spend most of the night hanging around on the top of the box, or on perches near the nest, but will still gang up on dad when he arrives with food. At that point, he may even resort to dropping the food onto the gang of mobbers and flying away.

Being mobbed by your babies is hardly conducive to giving a proper greeting to your lifetime mate. However, we are also seeing that Molly is going out for extremely long periods of time. I am almost 100% sure (with live animals and personalities we can almost never say we are 100% sure of anything)...that they are bonding while she's out of the nest.

People have asked me about penetration and other details, wondering why they would mate while they still have babies, speculating that they are mating well after the babies are growing to ensure that there's a healthy clutch. Well, let's straighten out how all this works with barn owls.

The most important thing to remember is that they have no external parts. Nope! Not like geese, not like ducks - thank God. Remember, Wesley used to both mate and bond w/ my arm, and most people who have raised a male bird of prey gets mated with.( You don't have a choice, really. Try fighting off a very determined bird of prey all day every day and you'll start to get the picture. There are programs, in fact, that take advantage of this behavior but we'll talk more about that later).

So, where are their "parts"? They're up inside the owl, nestled in with the rest of his internal organs, near the sternum. In fact, I used to "sex" birds for zoos and private bird breeders by inserting a tiny optical tube through the ribs of an anesthesized bird and peering in to see if they had ovaries or testes in there. The ovary looked smooth and the testes looked wrinkly w/ millions of little tubes all jammed together, making sperm.

With everything way deep inside, the owls mate by pressing their cloaca together. The male releases a tiny drop of sperm and it travels down a little tube to the surface of the cloaca. When they press together, the drop is transferred onto the female, and the little sperms swim up a tube to her ovaries.

It's amazing that they manage to mate at all with all the feathers and lack of parts.

But, much like humans do, owls use aspects of their mating ritual to greet each other. Humans use hugging and kissing as a nonsexual greeting, not just as a precursor to mating. Owls mimic the mating behavior to greet each other - only mates do this.

The bonding that we've seen inside the nest is not to insure that the clutch is complete. It's way too late for that. But they will mate to produce the next set of eggs at some point along the way. It's highly likely that they'll have another clutch immediately following this one, possibly with a little bit of overlap. In S. California, they may even produce 3 sets of babies in one nesting season. Remember, it's only April and nesting season can last through September.

In the world of Barn owls, there is no other social group. They do not flock, herd, gather, school, or live in prides. The mated pair is the limit of their social connections, other than the babies during the time when they're raising them. But after the babies are on their own, the mated pair is still together, bonding, preening, snuggling and cuddling, making sweet little sounds only for each other which are barely even audible to anyone else.

They're completely devoted to each other for life.

Young owls do make mistakes, which is one reason so few live through their first year. I mention this because I think Molly might be spending too much time away from the babies. It is true, however, that we are not able to observe how close she is to the nest when she's out. She may be nearby.

But there's an interesting comparison between Molly and Owlivia, who is in the same little area called San Marcos. Yes! There is another barn owl box to compare to Molly and McGee, which is the box containing Owlivia and Owliver! They have 5 babies. Owlivia does not leave the nest but stays with her babies. THIS is what I'm used to seeing.

It may be that I've accidentally skewed my own observations by inadvertently watching mostly the nests of very experienced barn owls. Since Molly is a new mother (I'm pretty sure she is), she may not be settled in to how to do things. OR she may be out hunting because there isn't quite enough food being delivered by McGee, or she may be restless.

Back to the bonding vs. mating question, I think they'll bond every day for the rest of their lives as a greeting - Wesley certainly did with me, but he only rarely "produced" anything, so he clearly was not mating. During nesting season, though, he tried to lure me to "nests" and did "produce". I don't think it's possible to know the difference through observation, except to know that they can't possibly be mating every single time they greet each other throughout the year.

This confusion between bonding and mating has no doubt led to some false conclusions by naturalists, bird watchers, and biologists in the past. But it's well known, now, that there's a difference.

Here's an interesting fact - biologists now use this behavior by their imprinted, unreleasable birds (parrots do this also) to help breeding programs for endangered birds. They wear a hat with a little plastic rim around the top that catches the output of the amorous male as he mates with his human. His "output" is then collected and send to breeding programs that artificially inseminate the females. Voila' another generation of an endangered bird, ready to be eventually released into the wild. Isn't biology fun?


About Molly and her flyabouts:
She sometimes comes back wet-ish. I say wet-ish because she is not at all waterlogged. The majority of her feathers are dry underneath, with mainly the tips of her feathers being wet. This way she can still fly. Her leg feathers are pretty soaked though. I wonder if she's standing in dewy foliage or going into the sprinklers somewhere or actually wading into a body of water.

Wesley used to enjoy being sprinkled while I took a shower, which gave him the satisfaction of getting a bit of a bath, without becoming so waterlogged he couldn't fly.

When he took a full bath, though, he would not be able to fly or even lift his wings up fully. He weighed probably more than twice his body weight when his feathers were completely soaked to the skin.

Two items were found online - The first is a sequence of photos of a barn owl taking a serious bird bath - immersing himself until waterlogged. The second is a video of a barn owl who not only takes a bath in the sprinklers, he anticipates that it's almost time for the sprinklers to start and stands on the lawn waiting for them to turn on.

Owls can tell time within some parameters - this one was off by a little, but he still got his bath! Note that both owls must have felt very secure that they would not be attacked, because they threw caution to the wind Most owls are very alert and cautious even when sleeping but these guys really knew they were safe. Either that or they were young owls being very, very stupid.But I think these owls have assessed their territory well enough to know the patterns and to know that there probably isn't a predator near. Finally, notice that both are taking a bath in broad daylight. Barn owls are mostly nocturnal but they are known to go out during the day sometimes.



Barn owl bathing: http://www.peterbagnall-wildlifeimages.co.uk/Barn%20Owls_page_1.htm

Owl in sprinklers video (Great Horned?): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0fIBrsyu0A

The barn owl in the sprinklers acts just like Wesley did when he would hang upside down off the shower rod - same wild positions. This owl almost turns a summersault at one point near the end, he's so intent upon putting his wings up and face down. His feathers are fluffed to the absolute maximum, just like Wesley's during a shower. When Wesley started doing this in 1986 or so, maybe late 1985, it had never been reported. Now the internet is full of owls bathing!

(Note: only my text is copyrighted to me, not the internet links.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I just realized I can answer comments in the comment section

Ok, I admit it. I'm a little slow on the uptake. I answered someone's comment in the main blog because I thought I really should answer her - I feel like that a lot. So I finally realized that I can just answer someone w/ a comment in the same section where they wrote. Maybe that's not the right way, but it beats putting answers up on the main blog sometimes, especially if it's not in English.

I just answered Colleen in the comment section below where she wrote. That's pretty neat!

Of course, I will answer general questions as best I can in the blog itself. I'll try to get to all the questions about owls, etc. at some point here.


An answer in Spanish to Eva

Oi Eva!

Muchas gracias por sus comentarios. Yo realmente disfrutar de ellos. Espero que seguirá agregar sus comentarios. Estoy muy feliz de que usted quiere ser un biólogo. Es una buena manera de vivir y es una carrera muy emocionante.

También estoy muy contento de que te ha gustado mi libro. Me siento honrado por todo lo que dijiste y sus amables palabras para mí.

Los 200 polillas que volaban alrededor de mi habitación se aparearon entre sí y luego murió. Ellos pusieron sus huevos en las paredes de mi pero yo se los quitó. Luego no hubo más polillas. Que adventura! Esta paso quando yo era 14 anos de eded, lo mismo que tu.

Espero que siga agregar sus comentarios. Muchas gracias por leer el blog y por escrito.

Si el portugués es más fácil para usted, puedo leer portugués y respuesta que en portugués también.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thank you! Also a health update for those of you who asked...

Wow! Ok, so there are more people reading than I thought - again, not that I would stop writing because I usually only hear from a chosen few. I am very honored to write for the esteemed few and I don't overlook those of you who I've been hearing from! Please don't think that!

I was just wondering if there were other people also reading. And apparently you are! Thank you for reading! I'm very honored. When a person writes, they sit alone in their home tapping away on the computer, but it's hard to visualize people actually reading it!

When I was writing Wesley the Owl I had a hard time envisioning anyone other than a few friends or family members reading it and was astounded when a lot of people read it and connected with what I was trying to say.

During the process of getting to publication, several publishers turned it down, saying, "Who on earth would care about a Barn Owl? Now, if you were writing about dogs we'd have something..."

Luckily, as I've told you, a few publishers did get it and my editor, Leslie, is the one who really connected with it and cried over it and put her heart and soul into getting it out. She's a passionate birder herself.

Anyway, I still have that feeling of, "Gee would anyone want to read this?" sometimes. I guess we all feel like what we do is so normal. Well, to US it is!

One thing I've learned is that everyone has a story that's interesting. Everyone. To them, they think it's not interesting because they're used to it. A person living in a small town in Mississippi probably thinks they live a boring existence, but to someone who's never lived in a small town in Mississippi, it is fascinating! The same goes for someone living in a high rise apartment in NYC. Everyone they know lives in a high rise in NYC so what's the big deal? Well, to me I'd love to read all about what that's like. I can hardly imagine it!

And each person has a unique point of view, which also makes each of us interesting to each other. Look at all these reality shows! We want to learn about each others' lives.

Well, this is a ramble...But THANK YOU for letting me know you're out there!

Silly me.

About the comment sections, I only look at the most recent posts because I've always assumed that any new comment would be under the most recent post. The blog site doesn't flag new comments for me, so I don't go down through all my blog entries.

It's very important to me to read your comments!

So let me answer a couple of questions:

People have asked about my disability. Yes, I apparently have to live with this for the rest of my life, so I'm quite affected by it. There are many days where I only get a few hours of wakefulness per day and spend the rest of the time asleep. I could never have imagined it was possible for a human being to sleep for 20+ hours a day for over 10 years. I feel like that fairy tale character...was it rumplestiltskin?

So I take advantage of the short amount of wakefulness/productivity I have each day. Everything that isn't absolutely essential goes by the wayside, including my previous standard of housekeeping. I do take care of my hamsters and dog, of course.

I am able to do these speaking events by planning very carefully. I have to tell the event planner about the disability (or my publisher tells them), which means I can't schedule a bunch of back to back events in a row. I arrive the day before an event and sleep in the hotel until right before the event, then afterwards I usually go straight back to the hotel and sleep through the night. Usually I travel home the next day.

So, whereas most authors fly in, do a bunch of back to back events, then fly out on the same day, I have to go at a much slower pace. But so what, really?

All my life I've been going, going, going like gangbusters, with every moment of the day filled with action items, squeezing as much productivity out of each day as it would, gasping, allow. And I've been doing that since I was six years old and started doing a lot of commercials and singing gigs in studios - movie soundtracks, Disney albums, singing background on a lot of people albums - the pop stars of the 70s, and then doing on camera commercials and small parts in shows like Little House on the Prairie, Bionic Woman (which used to actually be a popular show, believe it or not!). Anyway, combine that with lessons of every kind scheduled in so tight that it was almost a 15 minute by 15 minute schedule at times, and I was pretty busy as a kid.

Don't get me wrong! I loved it! And a good measure of that was stuff like Ballet, so I have always loved to work out and I used to run 10 miles a day....then BAM...got too sick to even stay awake!

So maybe I'm making up for all the rest I didn't give myself for all those years. I don't know.

Here's the good news though, knock on wood/w/ God's blessing - I haven't had a coma since yr 2000 and no more strokes. I'm pretty well recovered from that bigger stroke and the other TIAs. I think I'm the only one who can tell I ever had a stroke.

The most embarrassing aspect of all this is that I've gained a LOT of weight due to the medications and, I'm sure, to the fact that I'm not able to work out like I used to. I used to do Irish dancing, before I got sick, ran 5 miles a day, lifted weights, worked long hours...

But I do think many of us are living on caffeine and adrenaline and I've come to realize that living that way doesn't work either. I thought it worked but really it wasn't good to do so much. If I got well today, completely, I like to think I would not drive myself the way I used to. That I would rest a lot more and take it all a lot slower.

So there you have it, those of you who have asked for an update on the health situation. This is liveable and there are some blessings attached to it, believe it or not. Slowing down has been a great blessing. I might not have been in a contemplative space, mentally, to sit down and write Wesley the Owl if I was running a packed schedule. But I wasn't, so I had time to really think.

I don't feel like, "Oh poor me" - never did. I know of so many people who've been through so much worse. And I lived in Mexico when I was 16 with a friend who I'd met up here who was studying in America. When she went back, she invited me to come stay with her family. They were so wonderful and had a comfortable life in Acapulco near the jungle. A truly gorgeous setting. We ate fresh fruits and vegetables from the market every day, fish caught that day, and fresh meat. Everything was delicious and not processed..
The people were lovely and gracious and kind and friendly - I can't say enough about them.

But I also saw poverty as I'd never seen it before. I realized that there were some families who could not get even the most basic care and would pace outside a hospital w/ a dying baby, screaming and crying for help, but since they were poor, no one helped them. The hospital doors were closed to them and their baby died. In fact, a lot of babies died before the age of 5. Poor people had so many parasites that even if they did eat, the parasites got half of it. And during the time I was there, there was a paramilitary presence of revolutionarios in the nearby jungle, so I saw a bit of that.

Enough to realize that by just living in a place where I can get medicine is a huge, huge thing and that many people of the world can't even dream about that kind of care. They just suffer. There is no pain medicine for them, nothing to relieve their suffering. People start working when they're 3 years old selling chiclets in the street and they work like that, doing some kind of hard labor, until the day they die. No public schools or free education! What a shock! You could only go to school if your family had the money for books, uniforms, school fees...and the poor were kept out of that system!

I'm glad I saw all that firsthand at such an impressionable age. The family I lived with did not have any of those problems, but I saw it around me. In Mexico, the poor are not pushed into a particular part of town where they're out of sight. You can have a mansion next to a stick shack. In a way, it's more real.

Now I think all teenagers ought to go to Peace Corp or do something in a developing country just to rub the spoiled edges off of them. Especially if they do have spoiled edges! I don't think I did, but it was still a huge eye opener that gave me perspective for the rest of my life.

It also locked in my love of other cultures and languages and my desire to keep learning about other ways of life.

Well, this has nothing to do with owls, does it? Sorry about that.

I'm going on theowlbox to see what Molly and McGee the Barn Owls are up to and will try to post more about them later.


Is anyone out there? HeloOOOOOO???; also, upcoming curriculum possibilities

Hi all!

I haven't gotten many comments on the blog lately and am wondering if the entries are just too long or if there really are more than a handful of people going on? Of course, I'm very happy to write for the esteemed handful! Don't get me wrong!

But, if you do read the blog, please leave a comment and let me know you're there. I'd love to hear any questions you might have from watching Molly and McGee at theowlbox or anything you might want to know from reading Wesley the Owl. There is no such thing as a dumb question, remember that!

Someone asked if I have a press kit for schools. Not right now but i'm going to talk to Simon and Schuster about just that very thing this week.

I have had amazing experiences with Wesley the Owl being part of a curriculum for special needs kids and adults. Recently a day school for special needs adults did a big study of Wesley the Owl. The teacher either helped people read it or, in some cases, read it to them (there is an auditory form of the book on CD for blind people and anyone else who would do better hearing it than reading it, and it's unabridged). It was the first book that many of them had read and they took their time. They brought in a naturalist and someone who could bring in a live owl. We started out by me having a discussion with them via speakerphone, moderated by their teacher, then at the end a few months later, we had another speaker phone discussion where they asked questions they had about the book and about my disability. Many of the autistic adults could really relate to some of Wesley's attributes such as hating me to change at all. Wesley didn't even want me to change my hair. They could relate to why Wesley was so stressed by new people. I thought it was an interesting insight. There were a lot of good insights from the class and I enjoyed participating.

So, from that, I started thinking about a curriculum for special needs people, and then that morphed into thinking about a curriculum, period.

So I'm going to try to come up with something with Simon and Schuster, and I'm going to ask the teacher of that original class to participate in putting together something for other teachers, based upon her experience. She said that the book brought up a host of issues for people, including getting in touch with their own grief over losses they'd had, that they had never really dealt with. It also talks about coping with a disability and doing what you can within the confines of that disability - in my case a brain tumor and symptoms that cause me to only have a few hours of wakefulness a day. Sometimes only 15 really productive minutes in certain cases. And yet, with that 15 minutes, you can still move forward and have hopes and goals.

Anyway, a curriculum is in the works.

In the meantime, we do have a guide for book clubs if you're interested. There are questions in the back of the paperback that are conducive to book clubs as well.

I am available for book club and class discussions via speakerphone, which works well for clubs in other states, etc.

I hope this helps!