Saturday, September 29, 2007

Teaching an Owl to Fly

Enough of politics, today we’ll discuss how one teaches an owl to fly. It probably should be noted in advance that I don’t actually know how one does that and that I do not recommend the practice of it, but this is to share with you an adventure of some fifty years ago.

And no, it’s not a figure of speech. We’re talking about an actual owl and actual teaching. Well, attempts at teaching. Background first.

When I was in high school my friend Dale and I had a habit of tromping through the woods, doing nothing other than just being in the woods. On one such excursion we found a baby owl on the ground. It was down-covered with no feathers, and our best efforts could not discover its nest so we took it home and raised it. He (or at least putatively he, with owls one can’t really tell without an examination more detailed than we cared to make) turned out to be a Great Horned and lived on the woodpile behind my house.

Great Horned Owls are huge, aggressive, nasty, bad tempered and they don’t like people, cats, dogs, birds, or even other owls. Oscar was no exception but, probably since we had been bringing him lunch, Oscar liked Dale and me and he left my family’s cats alone. It became my exclusive job to bring in firewood because Oscar wouldn’t let anyone else approach the woodpile. He also got along with Dale’s raccoon, named Troubles.

When Oscar was still too small to fly we carried him around in a bucket, which our whole town thought was really cool. (It was a small town.)

What you got in the bucket?
Well, by God, look at that, you actually do!

In due time Oscar developed a full set of feathers and very handsome wings but he never did anything but crap on the woodpile, scarf down the food we brought him and ride around in the bucket. He did graduate from the bucket to sitting on leather sleeves on our wrists, but it never seemed to occur to him to try the flying thing. We became a bit worried about his flying skills, and therein begins the story. You have to remember we were teenaged boys, not naturalists. Teenagers do not always think things through.

Somewhere we learned that birds are taught to fly by their parents and that Oscar had come to believe we were his parents. Obviously we had not been flying around very much, as this was before the days when high school drug use was common, so we decided it was incumbent upon us to teach him how to fly. This presented a bit of a problem since, not only did we not know how to fly ourselves, we really weren’t all too clear on how birds did it either. Oscar was in for a traumatic week.

Dale, I think it was Dale, I’ll blame him anyway, had read something about a mother bird “pushing the baby bird out of the nest,” so we started by simply pushing Oscar off of the woodpile. That was something less than a success, as Oscar never even opened his wings but merely fell to the ground and landed with something of a thud. Cats land on their feet, owls do not. He picked himself up and looked at us accusingly.

We tried tossing him in the air. Thud. We tried holding his wings out and pushing him off of the woodpile. Rustle, rustle, thud. No flapping of wings, merely a rather disorganized thrashing before hitting the ground. We tried holding his wings out and moving them up and down before pushing him off of the woodpile.

Okay, let’s make my point. Human beings cannot teach an owl to fly.

They can have a lot of fun in the process and really irritate the crap out of the owl, but the end result is probably going to be, as it was in our case, that the owl’s wing is going to wind up getting broken. Oops.

So we took Oscar to the vet. The vet was mostly a horse and cow doctor who would, if sufficiently importuned, treat dogs and cats. Not birds. We eventually persuaded him to “fix our owl” and brought Oscar into the exam room. The doctor and Oscar formed an instant dislike for each other. Oscar could not decide which was preferable: escaping or ripping the doctor to shreds. So Dale is holding Oscar, the doctor is fooling with the broken wing, and I am attempting to keep Oscar from biting the doctor by holding Oscar’s head.

Brief lesson in nature here. Owls do not have necks. What an owl has instead of a neck is a very flexible ball joint. An owl can turn its head through 360 degrees, it can not only look straight up, it can look past straight up, it can turn its head upside down... And there's no handles.

In short, you cannot hold an owl’s head.

The doctor handed me a large roll of gauze and told me to stuff it in Oscar’s beak, which I did. Oscar promptly swallowed it. Shit, that can’t be good. There was a tail of gauze hanging out of his beak so I grabbed it.

Point of information: once an owl has swallowed something, do not try to take it away from him!

Oscar finally decided the gauze was not food, or he got so mad that he spit it up out of sheer cussedness.

The story has a happy ending. Oscar’s wing healed fine and he learned how to fly on his own. He was, in fact, quite a spectacular flyer. His flight was so silent that when he came up behind us and took the caps off of our heads we never heard him coming and losing the hat always came as a surprise.

We took good care of Oscar but we had taught him to be a daytime creature and sleep at night, and owls cannot survive in the wild doing that, so when we left school we donated him to the local zoo. I checked back about ten years later and he was doing fine. All these years later I still have a fondness for owls, especially Great Horned Owls.


  1. I'm a friend of Barbara's and I'm so glad you decided to share Oscar's story! What a fabulous tale! My husband and I are still laughing!

  2. Glorious! I love that grouchy owl.