Sunday, January 18, 2015

Owls are cats with wings

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, pets, memoirs, owls

In the early 1980s, on one particular day on the road from London to Kent, a driver who was paying attention might have seen another driver with an owl perched on his shoulder. The owl's name was Mumble, and the driver's, Martin Windrow.

For 15 years, Windrow shared his flat, and later a home in Sussex, with the Tawny Owl he'd obtained with the help of his brother. He writes of those years together in The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living With a Tawny Owl. For this rather lonely young writer and editor, Mumble was a godsend. His brother had persuaded him to try caring for an owl, but a first attempt, with a less congenial species, was humiliating and blessedly brief. If a Tawny Owl is similar to an affectionate tabby, this first owl was more like a fiery Siamese, the kind who either ignores or hates everything you do. Fortunately, he was willing to try again.

When he was introduced to Mumble, egg-raised for the purpose, not wild-caught, it was love at first sight for both. It had to be; as he describes it, living with Mumble was like being a single parent with an infant who never grows beyond a year or two yet becomes an adult in certain ways.

I was particularly taken when he described pet owls as "like cats with wings". Cats I can relate to. However, where a typical house cat might weigh 5 to 12 lbs (2.2 - 5.4 kg), this species of owl weighs at most 1.8 lbs (0.8 kg). But its talons compare to the claws of an Ocelot, so if you encounter even a small owl and it goes for your face, you're in real trouble!

All Mumble ever did with Windrow's face was nuzzle, and a bit of nibbling of his beard, in a similar fashion to her own feather-preening. In fact, Mumble liked what the author calls "necking" on nearly a daily basis.

A few chapters in the book outline the natural history of Tawny Owls, Strix aluco, but most relate the experiences of owl and man carrying on a life together. Mumble was somewhat sociable with others his first year, just as a human child is. After that, she became a one-man owl, and it was not safe to allow others into her presence. Everyone other than Martin Windrow was an intruder in her territory, and even the comparatively gentle Tawny species defends territory quite fiercely! Fortunately, with proper introduction and assimilation, he was able to persuade Mumble to accept one friend's caretaking while he was away once for more than a week.

Her life ended prematurely when someone, probably a misguided and misinformed "environmentalist", entered her outdoor aviary. From evidence on the scene, she apparently took a fierce whack at the intruder before dying of a heart attack. Windrow found her unmarked body in the open enclosure upon returning home. He sincerely hopes she marked the fool for life, and I heartily agree.

The "Caesar" of the title was a bust of Germanicus Caesar, and her bust-sitting is mentioned once in the text. I suppose it makes for a spiffier title, but her favorite perch was the top of the kitchen door. Not great title material.

I guess I'd describe this as a very comfortable book. Just the right book to read on chilly winter evenings.

1 comment:

Alan McDonley said...

Thank you for spotting / spotlighting this book. My first exposure to owl-human interaction came in the prose of "The Owl Critic", James Thomas Fields in my youth, some 49 years ago. "The Owl Who Liked Sitting On Caesar" has been added at the top of my To-Read list.

(Your blog is providing a wealth of excitement.)