A biologist friend told us not to become attached to the three baby Great Horned Owls that hatched this April. He explained the owls have brains the size of peas and that their sole purpose is to hunt. This isn’t our first rodeo; we’ve had baby owls before, but I didn’t mention it.
It’s hard to be objective when Ron and I watched the mother owl sit on her nest for thirty-seven days without so much as flying to a nearby branch high up in the pine tree from where she nested. We were thrilled when the first baby poked its head up from under its mother’s wing and were in awe when we counted heads again a few days later to find the mother was willing to share her nest with three rambunctious babies. All the while, the father brought food to keep his brood alive.
In mid-June, when Ron found one of the fledglings on the ground out by the windmill with a broken wing, we made calls and found Dennis who works for Gila Wildlife Rescue in Silver City. Two days later, we found out the owl had an infection and needed to be euthanized. I was sad but told myself its part of nature’s plan. “We still had two babies left,” I said, when a friend asked how I was doing.
One evening in late June, a wind storm came through sending dog dishes and lawn furniture skittering across the lawn. The next morning, we found a second baby owl under a pine tree. We called Dennis, and Ron and I agreed to keep an eye on it. A day went by. The owl was able to fly short distances but continued to return to his place under the pine tree. We took the owl in to be examined where it was decided it had been electrocuted. It died shortly afterwards. Devastated, I followed the third baby with my binoculars praying nothing would happen to it. As the monsoon season approached, I secretly hoped the wind and rain would remain at bay until the baby was strong enough to withstand the punishing storms. In these parts, where every drop of rain counts, this was an act of treason for which I harbored no guilt.
My interest in the baby owl, which bordered on obsession, grew into something that now resembles friendship. Each morning, I am greeted with screeching when I take the dogs outside. At night, after chores are done and the animals are in for the evening, I step out into the yard beyond the lights and call for her. Sometimes she answers from a nearby tree, but now that she is getting bigger and hunts on her own, I hear her faint screech from a half mile away. When I return home after being gone for a few days, she will greet me from an outlying branch where she bounces and shrieks as though saying, “Look at me! I’ve missed you!”
Like many kids, I took my first biology class in eighth grade where, with trembling hands, I dissected a frog that had spent its post-life in formaldehyde. It was in that class that I was introduced to the scientific method:
- Make an observation
- Pose a question
- Form a hypothesis
- Conduct an experiment
- Analyze the data and draw a conclusion
At no point was I asked to share my feelings about the dead frog that lay on the metal tray in front of me spread eagle with pins sticking out of it to keep it from sliding onto the floor. If given the chance, I would have asked to go home where I would have gone to bed, pulled a blanket over my head, and cried until my mom said it was time for supper.
Like some of the other kids in my class, our friend the biologist was cut from a different cloth. I imagine examining the internal workings of a frog or a sheep’s heart may have provided a sense of order in his world as he studied systems and learned about the taxonomy of animals. And by spending a career steeped in the scientific method, he learned to avoid the obvious: Great Horned Owls are capable of forming relationships.
As so often happens, I didn’t have a rebuttal when he said, with professional authority, owls were designed to hunt. That’s all. Period. But if I had been prepared, or at least wittier than I generally am, here is what I would have presented to him in terms he would have understood:
- Make an observation- The baby owl seems to notice me more than it does other people.
- Pose a question- I wonder if the baby owl has formed an attachment to me?
- Form a hypothesis- If the baby owl has formed an attachment to me, it should react to me in some distinct fashion.
- Conduct an experiment- Each time I go outside, I will screech and see if the baby owl screeches back in response. Control Group: Ron will also screech when he goes outside to elicit a reaction from the owl.
- Analyze the data and draw a conclusion- The baby owl reacts differently to me than to other people. Proof: Ron comes in and says, “You need to go outside. Your owl is calling for you.” Conclusion: Great Horned Owls are capable of discerning their attachments toward humans.
My own conclusion? I care deeply for the baby owl who continues to defy the monsoon storms that have arrived in full force. I delight in her antics and feel a connection when she calls out to me. I can’t predict what nature has in store for her and will have to deal with the loss, god forbid, something happens. What I have learned in observing the owl is that the things that matter most like friendship, feelings, and love cannot be accurately measured using the scientific method. I guess for now, the owl and I will stick to what we know, and let science ponder questions that don’t concern us.