Some scientists think birds may have evolved from dinosaurs, and to look at my owlet's feet and beak, especially before he had feathers, it sure seemed possible. Recent fossil discoveries suggest that some dinosaurs were warm blooded, had feathers, and kept their babies in nests, feeding and caring for them just like the parents of birds do now.
Another attribute that makes owls unique is their brain structure, which is completely different from that of most vertebrates. The barn owl's cortex is mostly dedicated to processing sound rather than visual images. I wondered how that would affect the way the owl interacted with me and my visually oriented domestic world. He must have a very different viewpoint, foreign to us. His world would be even more different from, say, a dog's, because dogs process their sensory information primarily through their noses and eyes. Dogs are mammals and social, so we humans and they have learned how to get along and live with each other over millennia. Some scientists even think that dogs and people helped each other evolve to our current forms. But it would be challenging to learn to live with this nonsocial animal. Owls don't stay in flocks, but individuals are devoted to their mates, living a mostly solitary life together.
Not only are owls interesting creatures historically and physiologically, but their temperament is also unique. Owls are playful and inquisitive. A friend of mine knew someone who had rescued a little screech owl and she described it as acting like a kitten with wings. She said the owl would fly up, then pounce on all kinds of objects exactly as a kitten does. Owls could also be creative. Sometimes I'd be walking by an office in the Caltech Owl Lab and see an owl making up his own game -- throwing a pencil off a desk just to watch it fall and roll on the floor, then flying off the desk himself, twisting in the air to get a good angle, then pouncing on the pencil. I also saw postdocs talking nose-to-beak with their owls when they thought no one was looking; rubbing noses, kissing, and playing little games. They seemed to enjoy each other's company in the same way that dogs and people do. Could my owl and I develop such a great rapport? I wanted to find out. After all, this curiosity and desire to experience animals and learn from them directly is what drives a person to become a biologist or naturalist in the first place, much as the space scientist is driven to find out what's on that next planet or in that new star system. Perhaps this was finally my chance to get to know a wild animal in the way I had always dreamed of as a child. I wouldn't be traveling thousands of miles and bushwhacking into the jungles of Africa or the Amazon to find my special animal. My owlet was coming to me.
Copyright © 2008 by Stacey O'Brien
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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