Tuesday, April 07, 2009

One Man's Owl


Our book today is Bernd Heinrich's 1987 One Man's Owl, his attempt to make a scientific record of the years he spent first rearing then weaning and finally parting ways with a great horned owl he named Bubo (and designated a "he" without ever finding out for sure). In the small and fiercely moving sub-genre of animal books that are specifically about the odd bond that can develop between humans and owls, this book is entirely a classic.

And it's a classic that came about despite its all its author's viewpoints on such classics. In 1987 he could write:

Owlhood is not likely to be served by ministering to an owl. Helping an owl affects one owl, and that is all. One can help more owls by buying an acre of forest and keeping it wild than by preserving all of those who run afoul of fate, or with civilization. But you do not see the former, or at least you cannot touch them and point your finger and say, "Yes, I helped this owl." The unseen, statistical owls are all too easily neglected.

I believe that the accelerating erosion of our natural world can be ultimately traced to our inability to see statistical owls. We are mesmerized only by the real ones. In this book I necessarily focus on one of the latter, but I hope it will not be at the expense of the former.


Nevertheless, once an observer as intelligent and sensitive as Heinrich starts paying attention to this alien creature he's taken into his world, he begins to encounter mysteries, and to ask questions, as in the case of the day Bubo acts petulant after an unexpected guest visits the author:

This morning Bubo is a different creature from the playful owl of yesterday, when he was on my lap and allowed himself to be stroked. Could he indeed be upset about yesterday's visitor? Ken is of approximately my size and build, except he has red hair and I have brown. Bubo can apparently tell people apart, but it is not only by their exterior appearance. His reactions to me are the same regardless of what clothes I wear. Just to test him again I now put a pillow case over my head to hide my face, and I notice no change in his behavior. There are mysteries here, and I do not yet have the answers.


Even a naturalist of Heinrich's powers seems reluctant in this book to make the obvious (though anthropomorphic) conclusion from incidents like this: that owls are just plain smart enough to recognize somebody they know well even if that somebody is wearing a pillow case over his head. To give Heinrich his due credit, any unwillingness he may have felt about thinking this way in 1987 rapidly dwindled in the years to come, as he did more and more close observations of a couple of key bird species.

But in One Man's Owl that particular species-obtuseness crops up from time to time, as in this beautifully worded bit of musing on owl eating-habits:

I gave him a jumping mouse. I know he cannot resist it, but he does not swallow it immediately. Instead, he spends a lot of time crunching its skull and other bones. Then he perches on my arm, mouse in bill, procrastinating. A jet passes over so high that it is barely visible to me. But he watches it the entire time it takes to cross the horizon, the mouse all the while dangling limply from his bill. He makes some muffled croaking noises from deep within his throat, and then, when the aircraft is gone, he returns his attention to the mouse.



It's neatly observed, but it leaves out one possible element, just outright appears not to see it through all the munching and perching: that Bubo might have been fascinated by the sight of that distant airplane - that he might even have daydreamed about it and become distracted. But what Heinrich, being, alas, human, misses is more than compensated by all the things he sees. My favorite element in One Man's Owl is the acute investigative streak the author can't suppress in himself. There are dozens of passages where he doesn't merely report what he's seen but goes one step further, drawing strong conclusions from some of it:

His urge to attack could be triggered even when he was not hungry, and when triggered it was energetic and persistent. With little or no apparent prior coaching, he attacked crows only after watching them intently as if to determine whether or not they were watching him. When they were watching him or looked at him, he did not attack, nor did he continue an attack when his potential victim, such as a crow, looked up, indicating that it had seen him approaching. Nevertheless, he vigorously pursued fully feathered young blue jays and white-throated sparrows that were aware of him and trying to escape, although their flight was clumsy. Without obvious prior experience, he instantly attacked the very first injured squirrel that he saw, whereas healthy noisy ones were only watched and never attacked. Although I often saw birds noisily mobbing directly in front of him (within one-half to one meter) I did not see him make a single attempt to capture any of them. It was not lack of hunger that kept him from trying to catch these birds because he spent several days trying to catch (non-mobbing) crows even after he was fully fed. In summary, what Bubo apparently could not do, or did not even attempt to do, was to capture a healthy adult bird or squirrel that was aware of him and let him know this by its display to him. He seemed to be acutely aware of whether or not he had the advantage in an attack, and that advantage, against healthy adult birds, might only be at night. An owl's hearing and vision are keener than that of most other birds, enabling them to strike in semi-darkness - and some can even do it in total darkness.


Like all great natural history writing, the passage gets you thinking and extrapolating and forming your own theories. Half of One Man's Owl does that kind of thought-stirring over and over (not to mention filling you in on more owl-facts than you can shake a stick at, like the high ick-factor detail that an owl's digestive juices can liquefy a mouse in under five minutes), and the other half pays objective and yet loving attention to this one real owl, even at the cost of all those neglected statistical ones.

As noted, Heinrich and Bubo eventually part ways when Bubo is released into the wild and steadily gains the ability to live there without support or even the occasional hand-out from his human friend. That they are friends, even long after this return to the wild, is completely beyond question: Bubo remembers Heinrich and greets him fondly whenever they later encounter each other. It's the perfect quiet note with which to end this wonderful book - an ongoing note, a thread of continuity silently winging its way from a well-lit cabin in Maine to the pitch-black pine forests of that other world.

8 comments:

Tadalafil said...

Bernd Heinrich has done a fabulous job as a writer and this book is the perfect example of his fabulous ingenious and ideology. I definitely have not words to describe the admiration I feel for Bernd.

kamagra said...

I think that owls are one of the most interesting and cool animals on the planet, they so unique and independent, excellent pictures by the way.

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