What an orphan owl taught an ecologist about bird intelligence

Owls aren't just smart, they have colorful personalities, as author Carl Safina learned from rescuing one

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 1, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

5 years-old Eastern Screech Owl (Mayra Beltran/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)
5 years-old Eastern Screech Owl (Mayra Beltran/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

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.

"She is very much an individual and a character."

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." 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.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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"With very young animals, when something is wrong and they have no reason to understand what it should be like, you usually don't see them reacting the way that an adult might if an adult had a capacity that they lost."

What are your main observations about owl sentience based on your experiences raising Alfie? Do you believe owls possess the same gamut of emotions as humans?

No, not the same, but overlapping. We have the vertebrate nervous system in common. We have a lot of the exact same hormones that create mood and motivation. And because things that make sense to me make sense to her in the same way, you can see that there are overlapping emotions. For instance, she likes some physical affection. She likes to get her head scratched. She likes a little bit of preening around the face, and she obviously knows and recognizes what food is.

We share a couple of those things. She shares a maternal drive, that is an instinctual urge to take care of her offspring. So not the same, but not completely different. 

I'm thinking of the anecdote in your book where Alfie was seemingly unaware of her own deformity while flapping around with her partially formed feathers. How did you know what she was emotionally experiencing at that time? How were you aware of her own sense of self? 

Oh, I'm not sure I know what she was emotionally experiencing when she was a very young chick. Her feathers did not come in, but she was ready to fly. She was trying to fly, but her body wouldn't cooperate with her. Since she had no experience of flying, it's not something that she could have quite missed. I guess it's reasonable to infer that she had some slight inkling that something was wrong. With very young animals, when something is wrong and they have no reason to understand what it should be like, you usually don't see them reacting the way that an adult might if an adult had a capacity that they lost. 

That makes sense. In another part of the book, the first time you tried to let Alfie wander on her own in their backyard, she and a group of blue jays started screeching at each other. Did you ever wonder during that exchange, or during other exchanges between Alfie and those blue jays, what they were saying to each other? If this was a movie and you could put on subtitles, what would those subtitles have said? 

I think that the blue jays are clearly trying to drive a threat away from them and out of their territory. I think that Alfie felt threatened, which she was, because the blue jays are about the same size as a screech owl. Screeches are small owls. She was being confronted by a mobbing group of other birds that were almost her size who were threatening her, trying to hit her. They would've been very happy to knock her out of the tree. They were mostly trying to get her to fly out of their territory. And I think she quite reasonably recognized them as a threat. She was threatening back as best she could, but I think that with no prior experience, she was a little bit bewildered in the moment and felt like, "This is a threat to me." And she was trying to defend herself vocally. So I think they were saying, "Get out of here!" And she was saying, "Stay away from me!"

"Their experiences might not be as intricate as some of the ways we think about things, but I think that their view of the details of life around them is very clear and very vivid to them."

I want to imagine that animals have complex thoughts and therefore complex exchanges with each other. Perhaps I'm anthropomorphizing them a bit, but when I was reading this book, Alfie didn't seem like some ticking machine with pre-programmed instructions, simply running through a cycle. She seemed like a character, like an individual.

She is very much an individual and a character. The individuality of her species is something that I saw when her first mate that she had for two years. And this is now after where the book ends off, after her first breeding season, but that mate, who I called Plus One, came back the next year and did not return the third year.

You wrote that you believed he might have been injured during a hurricane? 

Yeah, but then he returned and then the following year he did not come back, which indicates that for some reason he died the year after he did not come back. She got a new mate, and that new mate's personality was very, very different from the first one. So [owls] are individuals. 

How are their personalities different? 

The first one was taking his cues from her about whether he needed to be concerned about our presence or us being in fairly close proximity, like 30 feet away or so, while they were at their nest and mating and doing all their normal owl stuff. The second mate — and I saw that first mate essentially every single day, often multiple times — the second mate, I saw him once before the eggs hatched, whereas the first one I saw probably 40 times before the eggs hatched.

The second mate was much more elusive and he was much more aggressive toward me. He didn't like me anywhere near the nest or the young ones. He would often try to drive me away, come strafing and threatening, and an alarming thing about that is their flight is completely silent. So if they're coming out of your field of vision, which they usually do because they know what they're doing, you don't have any idea. Until they're right on top of you. In his case, he would usually scream at me, but once he just smacked me on the side of the head after the young ones were out of the nest and I was trying to locate them in the woods.

He just had a very different personality and a much dimmer view of me than the first one. And I think that the reality of the situation is somewhere in between them having very complex thoughts and them being ticking machinery. I think they have thoughts. I think they have very short planning horizons like "I'm going to go here now" or "I'm going to look for my mate" or "I'm going to go hunting now" or "I'm gonna bring this food back to the nest." And I think that they have very vivid experiences. Their experiences might not be as intricate as some of the ways we think about things, but I think that their view of the details of life around them is very clear and very vivid to them.

"I think owls are creatures. I don't think they are here to represent anything."

How do you know that Plus One didn't simply break up with Alfie? You assume that Plus One is dead, but is it possible that Plus One and Alfie merely had an owl equivalent of divorce? 

That is almost impossible because many studies have shown that with most birds, if they're successful in breeding, they almost never break up. If things are going well between them, and well between them usually means that they are able to raise young ones, which they did two years in a row, then he should come back. But they don't live forever and things happen. And I think something happened to him. I don't know how old he was. He may have just died of old age. He may have been hit by a car. He may have hit a window. He might been killed by a hawk — or another owl. We have horned owls here that would happily eat a screech owl if they could. So I think he died and I think that's why he didn't come back. 

I'm sorry to hear that.

Well, thank you! She was certainly looking for him. As the breeding season approached, she did a lot of really loud calling. It was actually quite sad to see. Her hormones all worked according to the season as they normally would. And she laid a clutch of eggs, but without a mate, none of them were fertile. None of them hatched. She incubated them about a week longer than she would've needed to if they hatched. So she was keeping the faith and the world had failed her that year.

It was very distressing for me and really sad to see. I was really very, very elated and delighted and excited when I did see that second mate. I think the second mate was quite young because their first attempts at actual physical mating copulation, he looked like he didn't quite know what he was doing and it was pretty awkward, which is something I would've said about her the first year with her first mate. I was watching her sort of develop that skill for physical mating. It was so interesting watching all of these things develop. 

In your book, you repeatedly describe different ways in which owls have been represented in culture: From Hieronymus Bosch and Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. What cultural depictions of owls do you believe are most accurate?

I think owls are creatures. I don't think they are here to represent anything. We attribute and apply our own concepts and our fears and our hopes to them. I think we mostly do that because they're rather unusual birds. They have faces that look very relatable to us, and they move around in the dark, which for most of human history was a very scary time. So people have come up with their own and totally different views of what characteristics they want to attribute onto owls, but to me, owls are birds. They're creatures with an evolutionary history and behavioral and emotional capabilities.

And I just find them delightful in many ways. They have very interesting little personalities because they operate sort of at a humanly relatable scale of time. In other words, they're not very jittery, like little songbirds are. And they like to preen one another. So if you happen to raise an orphan like we did with Alfie, that desire to be preened is very relatable. Because we like to pet things. They like to get petted. 

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What broader lessons do you think humans should learn about owls based on what you describe in your book about your relationship with Alfie? 

All of these creatures are around us at, even when we don't notice them and don't realize they are. I know from talking to some of my neighbors, some of them are aware of some of the animals that live in our neighborhood and some of them have no idea about some of the things that are quite commonly carrying on with their own lives here. That many of the wild animals are actually individuals with individual personalities. They all are always trying to stay alive. They don't seem to get depressed or want to commit suicide. They want to be alive and they want to raise their babies. And in that way, the broad strokes of their lives are very, very similar to our own, because we really are all members of one great enterprise of life on Earth. 

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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