Lessons from Raising a Lone Owl: Our Disconnected Relationship with the Natural World
My wildlife rehabilitator friend sent me a message asking, “What type of bird is this?” As I looked at the photo, I had to strain my eyes. At first, I thought it was a dirty cloth, but upon closer inspection, I realized it was a young bird in poor condition. It turned out to be a screech owl that had been found dragged and dropped on someone’s lawn. Based on its development, I estimated the bird to be around two weeks away from being able to fly.
After being cleaned and nurtured by the rehabilitator, the small owl was able to survive. We worked together to come up with a plan for a gradual release. The plan was to allow the young owl to fly on her own schedule and naturally wander off into the nearby woodland behind our house. We expected her care to only last a few weeks. I found a supplier of frozen mice online to provide her with food, and she started to thrive (we were unable to determine her gender until later). We affectionately named her Alfie.
The initial batch of young feathers grew in nicely for her. However, due to her previous struggle with starvation and lack of water, many of the long feathers on her wings did not emerge. As a result, when she should have been able to take flight, Alfie could only hop around.
Therefore, I placed Alfie under protective care in our enclosed chicken coop. Despite her successful growth of adult feathers during her molt, the arrival of winter reduced the availability of accessible food sources, particularly large insects. As she had not acquired the skill of hunting, I could not take the chance of releasing her and risking starvation.
In the following spring, I began teaching Alfie how to fly and hunt, using a fake mouse attached to a string for her to catch. As time passed, I developed a strong attachment to Alfie and was impressed by how well she responded to us and her ability to bond with us and appreciate physical affection. It’s well-known that humans have varying temperaments, and those who are familiar with dogs or cats are accustomed to their unique personalities.
However, we often view all wild animals as replaceable, likely due to our lack of personal experience with them. Alfie was more than just “an owl” to us. Our shared history formed a bond between us. Trust acted as a link that allowed her, myself, and my wife, Patricia, to connect.
I was worried about her well-being. However, in order for Alfie to have the opportunity to live the life she was meant to, we had to confront the dangers of her being free. As summer reached its peak once more, I left the door open. Alfie disappeared without a trace.
One week later, Patricia messaged me at 11pm saying, “Guess who returned?” After that, Alfie chose to make our backyard her main territory. Soon enough, we noticed another owl. Alfie now had a companion, a potential mate.
As Alfie began to experience newfound freedom of movement, the human population was facing a decline in their own. Shortly after her release, the Chinese government declared an unknown pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan on New Year’s Eve. This led to a global freeze on travel, economic downturn, and more than half of the world’s population being confined to their homes for the next 100 days, according to reports from the Guardian.
Our schedule became empty. We found ourselves with nothing to do but sit in our backyard and observe owls. At the same time, news articles showed us images of animals roaming the deserted urban areas, lawns, and popular tourist destinations. People all over the globe were turning their attention to nature, seeking comfort from the hardships of Covid through gardening, visiting parks, and listening to birds sing.
On most days, I woke up before sunrise and observed the activities of owls for a couple of hours in the morning and evening. Alfie provided me with an unparalleled perspective on the lives of owls. I could freely move around, track them, and sit openly without bothering her. She was more focused on the male owl in the wild.
Male potential partners showcase their abilities through a behavior known as “courtship feeding”. They would spend a brief period of time catching prey, often a moth, while the female would patiently wait on a nearby branch next to the nest box I had set up on the exterior wall of my writing studio.
Initially, Alfie was hesitant and did not fully accept his gifts. However, as time passed, he grew more comfortable and began eagerly anticipating his arrival. I was overjoyed to learn that Alfie was caring for three eggs.
I observed the subtleties of forming a connection. Initially, I had focused on her physical limitation. Now, I was recognizing her emotional ability. But why was this unexpected? Why do we often overlook the natural world that has enabled our existence? Observing Alfie was challenging the traditional barriers set by Western philosophy between humans and nature.
In numerous belief systems, the most sacred and significant elements pertain to the physical world. However, in the Western dualistic viewpoint, the world is often seen as the least sacred and least important aspect. This devaluation of the world has permeated through the Industrial Revolution and into the contemporary global economic structure.
All human-created systems deliver on the values that prompted them. The systems that support modern life depend on creating damage to the living world.
Mass extinctions, climate breakdown, toxins and pollution; these are now sometimes referred to collectively as “the multi-crisis”. After summers of blanketing smoke from thousands of devastating wildfires on various continents, have we done anything to change our tune?
Protecting the earth and ourselves from destruction requires recognizing the importance of non-human life. Our own sense of worth relies on this acknowledgement. Rather than technology, trees offer the most efficient and cost-effective solution to stabilize the planet’s climate.
When Alfie left our care and embraced the independence of free agency, she fully embraced her innate identity as an owl. Her experiences and ability to navigate her surroundings, while also avoiding potential dangers such as cats and hawks, shaped her into the owl she is today. Together with her partner, they successfully raised three offspring, continuing the unbroken chain of owl generations for millions of years.
Alfie lives in relationship, and our surprising capacity to relate to one another expanded my perspective on her life and mine. Birds and humans have not had a common ancestor for 300m years. Yet, Alfie always enjoyed a little head scratch that we enjoyed giving. Our nervous systems still relate, allowing us to share such pleasures. People for many thousands of years lived in relationship with nature and with their communities. If there is one lesson from traditional and Indigenous cultures – and from Alfie – it is that to live in relationship is how we might heal.
As of now, Alfie is five years old and has successfully raised 10 young owls. She continues to thrive in her environment, while I am still learning and growing.
Carl Safina, an ecologist and author, has recently published a new book called “Alfie & Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe” through W.W. Norton. The book includes excerpts from his work.