June 04, 2016

To Look an Owl in the Eyes

This is Newton at the Wildlife Learning Center in Sylmar, just north of LA. He usually stays in a dark, wooden enclosure because he's nocturnal, and the sun can literally burn his eyeballs if he's out in it for more than, say, 15 minutes.

And that's about as long as you get with Newton if you spring for one of the individual animal encounters—which is the only way to get one-on-one with many of the animals at the sanctuary.

As he gets acclimated to being outside in the sun—and being perched on a stranger's gloved arm—Newton will turn away, even as you rotate your body. Contrary to popular belief, he can't turn his head an entire 360 degrees, but he can get pretty close: 270 degrees.

Despite being taken out of his comfort zone, Newton doesn't seem distressed. His talons are relaxed on the glove rather than gripping, clenching, trying to pierce the leather and make a meal out of me.

And he's easy to hold up, too, because he only weighs about a half pound. Although his body appears pretty sizable—smaller than some hawks and other birds of prey, but bigger than another arboreal birds—it's pretty much all feathers that he puffs up to make him look bigger (and scarier) than he actually is.

The design of his feathers also keeps him incredibly light and allows him to catch the wind so he can get a lot of loft when he flies. And, incredibly, they allow him to fly at top speed almost entirely silently—with nary a flap or a flutter.

And that's a good thing—because, unlike the hawk, Newton is a solo hunter. When he's looking for food (often the same food that the hawk may eat), he's got to expose himself to his predators, and he ends up putting himself in nearly as much danger as his own prey.

Newton looks a lot like a barn owl with his heart-shaped face and feathers arranged in something of a "Caesar" cut. But he's a subspecies of the tawny owl, which means his face isn't quite as stark white and has more rufous, or reddish-brown accents. And it's that face that most people associate with an owl being "wise"—although, in truth, their brains are pretty tiny, buried inside all of those feathers.

He's considered a "typical" owl—or also a "true" owl—but it's hard to think of any owl as being typical. Those big eyes (and resulting binocular vision) aren't "balls" like those of humans and many other animals, but rather more like tubes that extend deep inside their skulls far beyond what you can see on the outside of their heads. (Hence, again, not a lot of room for brain.)

And as good as Newton's eyesight is—with that "binocular" type of vision they share with hawks—he also relies on his ears, which aren't symmetrically placed on his head. Because his left ear is higher and turns up, and his right ear is lower and turns dow, he's got keen directional hearing. But we couldn't even see his ears, since tawny owls don't have the ear "tufts" that you see on other common owls.

He did manage to surprise us when he unceremoniously coughed up an "owl pellet"—which is actually a compact nugget of all the indigestible parts (hair, fur, bones) of the animals he's eaten. It never makes it into his belly or gets pooped out because it gets filtered out and sent into the owl's "second stomach," also known as its gizzard. It's basically a holding tank and trash compactor, and when it's full, the owl empties it by hurling a dried up chunk of puke that drops to the ground with a thud.

He didn't give us a hoot—and he didn't give a hoot about us—because he wasn't trying to mate with either of us, and he didn't have to claim his territory. But even though he wasn't looking for a mate, that doesn't mean he has one. Eurasian tawny owls like Newton typically mate for life, but right now, Newton is a bachelor.

And because he's captive, he doesn't get to go out and hunt for his food, either. Mice are brought to him at feeding time, but not live ones—because if a live mouse decided to really fight back, it could actually hurt Newton.

All of the animals at the Wildlife Learning Center were either found or rescued—many injured, some illegally domesticated and then confiscated or abandoned by their owners—and can't be returned to the wild for whatever reason.

So although living in Sylmar isn't really ideal for any of them, at least it's better than where they came from. And, selfishly, I'm glad he's there—because when else would I ever be able to look an owl like that in the eyes?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Walking with a Hawk
Photo Essay: A Bird in the Hand
Photo Essay: An Orphanage for Contraband Pets