July 3, 2014

‘Shaving is tricky with an owl on your right shoulder.” So writes Martin Windrow, a British bachelor who in the spring of 1978 decided to adopt a month-old tawny owl as his flatmate in a London high-rise. During the course of their 15-year relationship, shaving was but one aspect of a very tricky life together.

Most people would blanch at the notion of keeping a wild animal as a pet. It’s not as simple as walking the dog or feeding the cat. There’s so much more to consider with the care of an owl. What does it eat? Dead, day-old chicks kept in the freezer. Where does it do its business ? Pretty much anywhere it wants. Windrow, a military historian and book editor, kept much of his apartment covered in newspaper or plastic to “guard against accidents of a scatological nature.” Where does the creature sleep? In this case, often on the top of an open door or on a bust of Caesar.

Windrow got the bird from a licensed breeder and named her Mumble. In their first encounter, he found her perched on the back of a chair in his brother’s kitchen. She was about nine inches tall and shaped like a “plump toy penguin with a nose-job.” He writes that the owl “appeared to be wearing a one-piece knitted jumpsuit . . . with an attached balaclava helmet. . . . It blinked its furry grey eyelids, then jumped very deliberately up onto my right shoulder. It felt like a big, warm dandelion head against my cheek, and it smelt like a milky new kitten. ‘Kweep,’ it repeated, very softly.” After this warm introduction, it is difficult for a reader not to feel something already for this sweet little ball of feathers.

Yet if you think you’re settling down to a heartwarming tale of a man and his owl, you’re only partly right. Windrow chronciles many wonderful moments between man and owl, and the book is at its strongest during these passages. But he also provides a far more complete picture of owls — and tawnies in particular — than you would ever have thought your mind capable of retaining.

There are chapters titled “Owls — The Science Bit, and the Folklore” and “The Driver’s Manual.” Brace yourself. Here you will be bombarded with lessons in the paleontology, zoology and even the sociology of owls. And Windrow is not an unbiased guide. While mankind evolved dramatically over time, tawny owls needed to evolve very little, no doubt because of their superior design to begin with. And don’t even try to compare the tawny owl with any other animal. The owl has them all beat. Windrow even takes umbrage with Pliny the Elder for claiming that owls have poor eyesight and that their presence always “foretells some fearful misfortune.” Rubbish, all.

“The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living With a Tawny Owl,” by Martin Windrow. (Farrar Straus Giroux)

I’ll admit that I struggled through the complexities of chapters like these, but I hung in there. And my perseverance was rewarded. For Windrow describes his relationship with Mumble not just from a zealously scientific perspective but also from the vantage point of a loving companion. An unmistakable bond formed between this man and this animal, but Windrow scarcely realized it at first.

There came a moment early on in their relationship, however, that tested both man and bird. One evening while Windrow was out, Mumble escaped through a partially opened window. The author frantically searched his apartment, and when he discovered she was gone, he panicked — and was wracked by an overwhelming sense of loss.

Windrow describes the next hour and a half as “among the most nerve-racking of my life.” With a flashlight in one hand and a dead, defrosted chick in the other, he took to the outdoors in a desperate effort to find Mumble. Miraculously, he spotted her in the alley behind his apartment. She seemed unharmed but in no hurry to return. She was busily exploring the window ledges of the building. Windrow spent hours calling her name and waving the dead chick in the air in the vain hope of luring her home. He finally sat on the edge of a concrete planter in a state he describes as “nauseous with fatigue and relief.” When Mumble calmly appears on the railing at his elbow, we feel his happiness.

As the years wore on, the relationship between Windrow and Mumble deepened. They settled into an affectionate and companionable routine. Often Mumble perched on Windrow’s shoulder, put her face close to his and allowed him to nuzzle her. Sometimes she groomed his beard. Over time, a level of trust built, perhaps reaching a pinnacle one night when Mumble decided to feed Windrow. He writes: “She suddenly appeared on my shoulder with a disgusting tangle of partly eaten chick in her beak. She repeatedly leaned around my face, unquestionably trying to reach my mouth and feed me. When I avoided these deeply touching but unwelcome attempts, she tried a couple of times to stuff the slimy gobbet into my ear instead.” It is during these parts of the book that Windrow and his owl truly shine.

I will not admit to crying when Mumble dies. I may have cried, and cried hard, but I will not admit to that in print. But there’d be no shame in it; she was a great owl. It took Windrow a long time to come to grips with her death. Nearly two decades passed before he was able to write the story of their relationship.

Windrow has no simple answer for why in his 30s he decided to acquire a pet for the first time or why that pet was an owl. But he can tell you what the owl meant to him. “During the years we were together her company enriched my life; it saved me from too much self-absorption, and increased my daily pleasure to a degree that I would never have imagined possible.” She became, simply, his beloved companion.

Brenna Maloney is the editor of National Geographic Explorer.

THE OWL WHO LIKED SITTING
ON CAESAR

Living With a Tawny Owl

By Martin Windrow

Farrar Straus Giroux. 302 pp. $26

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