What an orphan owl taught an ecologist about bird intelligence

What an orphan owl taught an ecologist about bird intelligence

Owls are associated with intelligence, which isn’t surprising, because these birds have incredible smarts and even distinct personalities, as ecologist Carl Safina learned firsthand.

After he and his wife Patricia rescued a baby screech owl that couldn’t be returned to the wild, they learned a lot about what owls are really like, as it grew up and raised its own baby owls.

In one example, Alfie, the name they settled on for the bird, sat on her eggs for a week longer than she needed to.

They were never going to hatch; indeed, they hadn’t even been fertilized. No one can know for sure what was going on in Alfie’s mind, but there is a plausible clue:

Her lifelong mate had disappeared, and she had been screeching persistently ever since.

Apparently, instead of finding an alternative mate, Alfie waited and waited and waited — until she finally laid a clutch of unfertilized eggs.

Does this mean that Alfie sat on those eggs for longer than necessary for emotional reasons? It’s hard to say for sure, but it seems like a plausible hypothesis after reading “Alfie & Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe.”

“She is very much an individual and a character.”

Written by Safina, an endowed professor for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, “Alfie & Me” is the story of how Safina and his wife rescued a baby owl and became entangled in its life. Although they had initially planned on only keeping Alfie for a short period, a chain of random events — most notable among them the COVID-19 pandemic — conspired to keep humans and owls constant in each other’s orbit.

The result is a story that challenges human assumptions about owls. On a cultural level, people revere owls, associating them with intelligence.

In Greek mythology, owls were associated with wisdom and the goddess Athena. We also fear owls: The medieval Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch painted owls as ominous, a motif that appears in art throughout history.

Owls can also be linked with death, such as how Hawaiian mythology holds that pueos lead the recently deceased to the afterlife. Finally, there are the people who take a dimmer view of owlkind and dismiss them as little more than dumb birds.

It’s understandable why owls have captivated humans across different cultures. It is impossible to read this book without concluding that owls are the very least have distinct personalities — which by extension means they possess some level of intelligence.

On occasions the owls seem relatable on almost a human level: Alfie struggles with separating from her parent figures, warding off bullies and finding a mate, just as humans do. For all the world, Alfie seems to react to situations with sincere emotional responses.

She is not just a random animal found in someone’s backyard; if souls are indeed a thing that exists, Alfie — and, again by extension, all screech owls — have one.


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This article by Matthew Rozsa was first published by Salon on 1 October 2023. Lead Image: 5 years-old Eastern Screech Owl (Mayra Beltran/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images).

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