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Messages from an Owl

Messages from an Owl

Max R. Terman
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 246
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  • Book Info
    Messages from an Owl
    Book Description:

    When zoologist Max Terman came to the rescue of a great horned owlet in a Kansas town park, he embarked on an adventure that would test his scientific ingenuity and lead to unprecedented observations of an owl's hidden life in the wild. InMessages from an Owl, Terman not only relates his experiences nursing the starving owlet, "Stripey," back to health and teaching it survival skills in his barn, but also describes the anxiety and elation of letting a companion loose into an uncertain world. Once Terman felt that Stripey knew how to dive after prey, he set the owl free. At this point his story could have ended, with no clue as to what the young bird's fate would be--had it not been for Terman's experimentation with radio tags. By strapping the tags to Stripey, he actually managed to follow the owl into the wild and observe for himself the behavior of a hand-reared individual reunited with its natural environment.

    Through this unique use of telemetry, Terman tracked Stripey for over six years after the bird left the scientist's barn and took up residence in the surrounding countryside on the Kansas prairie. The radio beacon provided Terman with information on the owl's regular patterns of playing, hunting, exploring, and protecting. It enabled him to witness the moments when Stripey was bantered and mobbed by crows, when other owls launched fierce attacks, and when a prospective mate caught Stripey's eye. On occasional returns to the barn, the owl would follow Terman around as he performed chores, usually waiting for a handout.

    Until now, scientists have generally believed that an owl nurtured by humans becomes ill-adapted for meeting the challenges of life in the wild. Terman's research proves otherwise. Stripey surpassed all expectations by becoming a totally independent wild creature. With Terman, however, Stripey remained tame, allowing the author to explore something one rarely sees in owls: a warm interest in humanity. Terman engagingly re-creates this dimension of Stripey as he describes with humor and compassion the daily challenges of probing the life of a "phantom winged tiger."

    Originally published in 1997.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6425-6
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-11)

    Occasionally, but not often, the lives of wild animals become entangled with our own. When a young great horned owl in a park in a small Kansas town fell to the ground, there began a story of teacher becoming student, of subject informing scientist.

    One sunny March day in 1988, a local minister became involved not only in the affairs of his congregation but also in the serendipitous aspects of nature. This is noteworthy because some men of the cloth tend to be so driven by spiritual motives that they seldom tune in on natural phenomena. Pastor Dennis Fast was...

    (pp. 12-15)

    Winter′s final grip had released the Kansas countryside, and all sorts of wild things were busy filling the fields and grasslands with offspring, following the driving motif of nature—reproduction. Yet only a small percentage of the young of any animal ever mature to adulthood. Most die in the jaws of a predator or from exposure to the elements. Even the owls, near the top the food chain, lose many of their broods to accident, disease, or other predators. Stripey, dumped prematurely from the nest by a March windstorm, probably would have been numbered among the lost, relegated to anonymity...

    (pp. 16-20)

    Considerable differences separate the traditional pet from the wild animal reared as a pet. A dog or cat is the product of generations of domestication—compatibility with the aims of man determining which individual will breed and which will not. Stripey was born wild, his behavior throughout our association only slightly removed from the unrelenting parameters set by the process of natural selection. The avoidance of humans was wired into Stripey′s system, but the owl chick′s chance exposure to humankind during a critical time of species identification resulted in a short-circuit in the wiring. In other words, the distinct possibility...

    (pp. 21-26)

    Do we really have free will or are our actions ultimately determined by our genetic makeup? How many of our decisions are really unforced and unencumbered? When opportunities in life arise, are we totally at liberty to choose which road we will follow? I do not presume to know the answer for humans, but I suspect owls go on automatic pilot for much of the first months of their lives.

    I refitted Stripey with a new leg-mounted transmitter and then carried him to a centrally located tree on TESA, a larger than average osage orange with widespread shade. With the...

    (pp. 27-32)

    Wild owls generally force their young to leave in late summer or early fall by refusing to feed them—supposedly the young by then have learned enough to fend for themselves by watching their parents hunt. However, most studies reveal that a majority of these young owls perish in the first year. Natural selection deals a rough hand. I wanted to give Stripey better odds. Because he was imprinted on humans and had only the briefest exposure to his mother, he had to learn to hunt from scratch, with a little natural help from his genetic endowment. The outlook for...

    (pp. 33-44)

    Summer′s monochrome passed into the multicolored days of autumn. Great horned owls mate in the dead of winter but begin carving out a territory and searching for a mate during the cool days of late fall. Stripey was hunting now and broadening his food choices to include reptiles (skinks). He was also responding to the calls of nearby wild owls who began showing themselves in prominent trees at the edge of TESA. He continued to stay near home base but the signs of fear were unmistakable—he was tense, jittery, nervous, with tufts erect and an ear tuned in to...

    (pp. 45-50)

    If a species is to be studied in depth, an investigator must devise a method of capturing one or more specimens. There are several interesting ways to catch owls. Some researchers use traps—either spring-loaded nets or pole-mounted springs—that draw nooses up around the legs. Another technique is to place a live prey animal in a weighted wire cage coated with entangling nooses of fishing line. When the owl tries to grab the prey, it becomes ensnared in the line. Alternatively, the owl is lured with a live prey item, usually a pigeon, and then is caught in a...

    (pp. 51-54)

    For the remainder of the winter, Stripey divided his time between TESA and his nearby haunts. Much of this hide-and-seek existence was forced on him by TESA′s resident owls. Late March 1989 found him checking out new, more distant areas—Franzen Creek and the associated farmstead and hedgerows. Great horned owls generally do not mate until the age of two so I did not expect Stripey to secure a mate or territory yet. TESA continued as home base, but as he extended the scope of his explorations, the home ties gradually grew weaker. Stripey was at once both wild and...

    (pp. 55-66)

    Although this owl project was rapidly becoming more fascinating, the research continued to raise more questions than it answered. The process of behavioral development in great horned owls was more involved than I had ever imagined. A complex interplay exists between brain and environment. Wired-in behavior patterns, stimuli, innate reflexes, learning, and changing environmental situations all mix with individual differences to provide a panoply of results. None of these can be predicted for an individual bird with any degree of certainty. Stripey was a great horned owl, but he was also a unique individual. He possessed all the evolutionary programming...

    (pp. 67-72)

    Although great horned owls are common over an exceedingly broad range of habitat and a lot of work has been done relative to great horned owl ecology, it is surprising how little science knows of the details of the owls′ day-to-day existence. The truly exciting aspect of radio-tagging my owl was the privilege to learn some of these details firsthand. If Stripey′s behavior proved to be at all normal, he could add significantly to our knowledge of the fabric of a great horned owl′s life. Courtship and mating, for instance, have rarely been witnessed, and if Stripey could attract a...

    (pp. 73-81)

    Driving over the Kansas prairie after having experienced the lakes, streams, and forests of Michigan, I was reminded of the daunting challenge faced by great horned owls who must adapt to the many variations in habitat throughout their range. For example, great horned owls in Michigan face severely cold winters while those in Kansas must endure extreme summer temperatures. How can one species adapt to such variations?

    Loosely stated, individual owls adapt through a combination of instinct and experience. Either of these components operating alone is seldom enough to enable the animal to survive. Natural selection working on local populations...

    (pp. 82-87)

    The end of May found Stripey back on TESA in a considerably milder mood than he had manifested for a long time. Once more I was able to feed him with midair tosses, and he seemed to be as accessible as he had ever been. He appeared to be centering his activities on the east edge of TESA and in the South Woods. The resident owls were nowhere to be seen—perhaps they had moved to a remote part of their territory, their reproductive fires seemingly banked. Stripey′s fires, however, apparently still smoldered.

    One afternoon as I was observing him...

    (pp. 88-94)

    On a hot wind-swept July afternoon, I arrived home in Kansas, land of incessant wind and wide-open vistas framed by clear blue skies. It is quite different from Michigan. William Least Heat-Moon, in his book,PrairyEith, which is about nearby Chase County, Kansas, describes the Jayhawker wind as coming ʺout of the lungs of the universe.ʺ Indeed it does, for when the universe exhales, it is as if Kansas and the central plains receive the entire brunt of the expiration—sometimes all at once.

    About the only thing that hampers the winds on the Kansas plains is the hedgerows—winding,...

    (pp. 95-98)

    Stripey obviously liked it on TESA. The grasslands teemed with mice, rabbits, and other prey. He had access to many favorite perches in a variety of habitats. The tall trees and creek were cool in the summer and provided protection from the cold winter winds. He also had a human who fed him and offered a diversion from what must be a rather hum-drum existence. Do animals strive for adventure and different experiences like we do? I don′t know the answer to this question, but Stripey faithfully flew into the barn each evening and I like to assume it was...

    (pp. 99-108)

    The next week was a sad one around our house as my family could tell that I was visibly shaken by the loss of Stripey. A scientist is not supposed to feel that way about the subjects of his study. Animals to an animal behaviorist are just that—animals. Animals are not friends but are subjects tested in unbiased fashion to get data to rule out null hypotheses and to answer questions. Well, that′s the way I started this study, and I still believe that is the way to do science. Emotions and feelings can cloud one′s judgment and can...

    (pp. 109-114)

    Christmastime for us means traveling to Ohio and Michigan, where Jan and I have family. When you do not have relatives within a thousand miles of you, holidays take on a special significance, and the long and sometimes hazardous trip to America′s upper Midwest seems less daunting. It would be nice to see my brothers, both of whom are teachers in the sciences. The sharing of my owl stories was a good icebreaker to overcome the long time that we had not seen each other. I often took time when in Michigan with Jan′s family to visit fellow animal behaviorists...

    (pp. 115-119)

    During the nights that followed, much hooting occurred on the Unruh farm. When I stopped by on my way home from Tabor, I heard distinctive male owl calls near the barn and hedgerow areas. Was Stripey doing this? The only time he hooted in the past was near the artificial nest and when he attacked the stuffed model on TESA. These could hardly be compared to the almost ceaseless hooting that was emanating from the dark recesses of Unruh′s farm now. It almost had to be Stripey, but I could never observe him vocalizing even though I tried many times...

    (pp. 120-124)

    Had Stripey really become a wild owl? Could he make it on his own now that he was nearly three years old? Could Stripey hunt, secure and hold a territory, attract a mate, and reproduce? These are the final measures of his success.

    The first three requirements were met. Stripey′s hunting territory at the Unruh farm was well established. He had stayed there a long time now, and I had mapped his movements to within a well-defined area of approximately eighty acres. I had direct observational evidence that he was hunting (pellets around his roosts) and that he was hooting...

    (pp. 125-138)

    In my work with Stripey I had reached a kind of plateau. I had reared, trained, and released and followed him for over three years now. He had truly amazed me with his survival skills and behavioral development. Was he a special case? Would another owl develop in the same way, given the same environment? A call from a farmer north of Hillsboro would open up another trail in my journey to understand the psyches of owls.

    Stuart Penner, a Mennonite farmer with a Mennonite name, called me one afternoon and said that he had discovered an owl chick in...

    (pp. 139-143)

    I took Hooter′s body to my lab at the college and wrapped it in plastic and put it into the freezer. As I lowered the lid, my enthusiasm for more research was about as cold as Hooter′s stiff body. It would have been intriguing to further compare Hooter with Stripey. Also, what would have happened if Hooter had wandered into Stripey′s territory at the Unruh farm? I potentially could have had two hand-reared owls interacting, each with a transmitter. Perhaps they would even have mated. The potential for more information was exciting, but now all I had was one dead...

    (pp. 144-153)

    Discovering things like Stripey′s thermo-regulating behavior convinced me all the more that Stripey was indeed a competent owl and was not all that hampered by being hand reared. Why then are there so many horror stories about imprinted owls? A usual story goes like this: An owlet is discovered in early April on the ground by a human and is taken (illegally by the way) home. There it is reared to the juvenile stage (usually on a near-starvation diet of hot dogs and other human food) by its well-meaning but underequipped and sometimes undercommitted surrogate parent. The screeching young owl...

    (pp. 154-161)

    When I arose the next morning, I immediately went to check Stripey at the Unruh farm. Attending a meeting and hearing research reports does something to get you motivated. Your scientific batteries recharge and the details of field work take on new importance. ʺNo man is an islandʺ—an oft-turned phrase that denotes a basic fact about our species. We need community to thrive. The thoughts and ideas of other people feed our souls, and we starve without them. Even owls require companionship from time to time.

    November is a month punctuated by cold hints of winter winds and the...

    (pp. 162-169)

    William Least Heat-Moon, who writes eloquently of the Kansas Flint Hills in his bookPrairyErth, quotes Philadelphia journalist Jay E. House: ʺSo far as we know, no modern poet has written of the Flint Hills, which is surprising since they are perfectly attuned to his lyre. In their physical characteristics they reflect want and despair. A line of low-flung hills stretching from the Osage Nation on the south to the Kaw River on the north, they present a pinched and frowning face to those who gaze on them. Their verbiage is scant. Jagged rocks rise everywhere to their surface. The...

    (pp. 170-182)

    The following week I left Jan and the girls for AuSable Institute and the North Woods of Michigan where I would be able to teach and write in a world of bogs, marshes, forests, water, and sand. Given a cabin on the shores of Big Twin Lake, I was kept company by eagles, loons, mallards, and an assortment of professors and students. A perfect place to draw things together.

    A natural question to be asked is how does Stripey compare in his behavior and development with what we know about wild owls and other hand-reared great horned owls? Before answering,...

    (pp. 183-200)

    It is difficult to end a book of this nature. Its main character continues to defy normal literary conventions by introducing new acts into the play that impede closure. I have not been able to catch Stripey and have stopped my regular visits to the Unruh farm to study him. I continue, however, occasionally to walk around the farm from time to time in hopes of seeing him. The old barn has been torn down and John Unruh has built a new house in its place, but Stripey is still there. John and his wife proudly report that he has...

    (pp. 201-204)

    This story will not grant me an ending. On a Saturday night in early March 1995, Dan Dalke called to say that there were, again, owls in his barn. His son had chased some out while doing his evening chores. Old feelings of excitement leaped up within me as I again contemplated interacting with Stripey. Caution swept over these feelings, however, as I remembered just how dangerous great horned owls can be. Would Stripey remember me? Would she let me get as close as she did in 1993 and allow me to handle the chicks? Even though I had already...

    (pp. 205-220)

    Stripey′s two eggs nestled warmly beneath her downy feathers as I climbed down the ladder at the Dalke farm and headed for my car. Leaving the driveway, I felt a wave of melancholy sweep over me as I reviewed the incredible adventure this owl and I had lived. Could it have been eight years since I had rescued the owl chick from a city park? The story had been recorded in a book, and even though all the characters in our play were still performing, it was time for me to move on. Many things beckoned for my attention. The...

    (pp. 221-228)
    (pp. 229-230)
  33. INDEX
    (pp. 231-233)