Wednesday, October 19, 2011


by Stacey O’Brien
Reviewed by Don Meyer

This is a true story.  It was February, 1985, and biologist Stacey O’Brien had been working at Caltech for about a year when she was called into the office of one of the scientists.  She was told that there was an owl with an injured wing, and needed a permanent home.  The  baby barn owl, only 4 or 5 days old. was so tiny and helpless he could not even lift his head. O’Brien says, “His eyes weren’t open yet, and except for a tuft of white down feathers on his head and three rows of fluff along his back, his body was pink and naked.  I was smitten beyond reason by his hopelessly goofy appearance.”

It seems that the little creature’s wing was damaged in such a way that although it likely would be able to fly, it could never survive in the wild.  Caltech was asking Stacey to adopt it.  This was also to be a scientific project as Stacey was to observe him, and record his sounds and behaviors, perhaps learning more about barn owls than could be done at a distance.  O’Brien says she was both thrilled and terrified of the opportunity, and said she would love to take the bird.  She did and named the baby owl Wesley.

“Wise Old Owl” isn’t just a phrase.  It turns out that owls really are quite intelligent.  And they have other attributes that makes them most intriguing creatures.  For example, owls don't stay in flocks, but mate for life.  They are both playful and inquisitive, and can play with a ball like a kitten.  O’Brien said that at Caltech she would sometimes pass by an office with an owl making up its own game.  It would throw a pencil off a desk, watch it fall and roll on the floor, and then fly off the desk and pounce on the pencil.  Even more interesting is that the owl brain is structured not for sight, though it does have keen night vision, but for sound.   Owls do not use echolocation, as bats do, but by homing in on the tiny noises that prey animals make. I find this fascinating. An owl’s auditory sense is so powerful, it is said that in the winter, it can hear a mouse under 3 feet of snow by honing in on its heartbeat.    O’Brien says that a barn owl’s satellite-shaped face focuses and receives the sounds, directing them to its ears.  Unlike human ears, which are in the same place on each side of the head, owls‘ ears are irregularly placed.  One ear is high up on the head and the other is lower.  That way the owl can triangulate the location of a sound much more accurately than humans.

O’Brien tells this story with both compassion and humor, the ups and downs that she and Wesley endured over the years.  This following incident had me roaring with laughter.  She says that while Wesley was still an infant, she used to take him everywhere she went.  She wrapped him in baby blankets, and held him in her arms, even when grocery shopping.  Occasionally someone would ask to see the ‘baby’, and when she opened the blanket, they would leap back shrieking, “What is that?  A dinosaur?”  O’Brien says, “Apparently the world is full of educated adults with mortgages and stock portfolios who think that people are walking around grocery stores with dinosaurs in their arms.”

Of course O’Brien had to feed Wesley.  There was no problem to know what he would eat.  Barn owls ingest only mice, and Wesley would eat six a day.  At first Cal Tech supplied her with mice that she kept in the freezer, but there came a time when Cal Tech was no longer able to do that.  And O’Brien had to make other arrangements.

This human - owl companionship lasted for 19 years, when Wesley passed away.  O’Brien said, “Wesley changed my life.   He was my teacher, my companion, my child, my playmate, my reminder of God.”

Bit of fun --


  1. Stacey and Wesley look so cute. I'm sure his passing left a huge gap.