Friday, 15 February 2008



By A. Hyatt Verrill

From World Horizons Magazine June 1939.

Digital capture February 2008 by Doug Frizzle

Editorial Note: We are fortunate, indeed, to be able to present to our readers this little personal story out of the life of one of America's greatest naturalists. The pen and ink sketches are from Dr. Verrill's pen and he himself is shown with Oswald perched on his shoulder.

A short time ago while listening to a radio broadcast, I heard a man declare that it was impossible to tame the large owls, such as the barred owl and great horned owl. It was not the first time I had heard this assertion, for again and again scientists and naturalists, as well as dealers in wild birds and animals, have stated in positive terms that the large owls are untamable.

Yet, at the very time when the radio speaker was informing the world at large that a barred owl cannot be tamed, a full-grown barred owl was perched upon my shoulder and was nuzzling my ear with his powerful yellow bill begging to be fondled and petted. And when I finally shut off the receiver and yielded to my pet's demands, I wondered what he would have to say on the subject could he express his opinion.

Perhaps Oswald, as we named him, is an exception to the rule that supposedly applies to all of his race. Perhaps all Florida barred owls are tamable and differ from their northern cousins in temperament more than in external appearance, for, aside from being somewhat smaller and darker colored, the Florida birds are indistinguishable from those of our northern states.

Whatever the reason, Oswald is not only a tame, barred owl, but an exceedingly tame bird, far tamer than any parrot or dove or canary I have ever seen. He is as playful and as gentle as a puppy and has never even offered to bite or scratch anyone during the fourteen months I have owned him. He loves to be petted, to have his big ears scratched and to "shake hands" with his powerful feet armed with long, needle-sharp talons. But he is very careful never to touch one's finger with the points of his claws and even when he is most excited and full of "pep" he never forgets himself and nips too hard with his beak.

Oswald's tameness and docility are all the more remarkable, because he was not reared from a nestling, but was fully grown and as wild as any owl when I first secured him. I was collecting birds in a cypress swamp and seeing a big, barred owl which I wished for a specimen, high up in a tree covered with Spanish moss, I fired at him. The owl came tumbling down, but when I went to pick him up I found that he was still very much alive. In fact he appeared to be uninjured aside from the tip of one wing which had been broken by a single shot. Neither did he show fight as do most wounded owls, and, although he fluffed up his feathers and snapped his bill viciously, he made no attempt to bite or strike out with his feet when I approached him. Thinking he might make an interesting pet, I coaxed him to perch upon a stout stick and with my companion's help carried him back to camp. Putting on thick gloves, I prepared to fix his broken wing — fully expecting he would bite and scratch and put up a savage fight. But, to my amazement, he allowed me to set the bone, clip off the long feathers to lighten the wing, and bandage the injured portion without offering any resistance.

In the big roomy cage I prepared for him, the owl seemed perfectly content and eagerly seized and devoured the bodies of the small birds I skinned. The next day a little girl who was watching the owl offered him a piece of the cooky she was eating, and to my utter astonishment, Oswald took it from her fingers and ate it. By the next day he allowed us to stroke his head, and from that time on he became tamer and more doeile every day.

During the nights he would sometimes hoot and utter strange cries which no one would ever have suspected came from an owl's throat, and soon dozens of wild owls would come flocking about the camp, chuckling, hooting, and seemingly carrying on real conversations with their caged fellow. Oswald, however, had no desire to return to the wild life. Even when his wing had healed and he could fly as well as ever he made no attempt to escape, but when taken from his cage, seemed almost frightened and anxious to get back within the safe refuge of it.

On one occasion he started across the open land towards a grove of pine trees. But before he had gone half way a flock of blue jays caught sight of him and began to scream and heckle him. Instantly the owl became panic-stricken, and turning about came flying and hopping back as fast as he could go and fluttered to my shoulder. After that experience nothing could induce him to stray from the camp and the protection of human beings.

During the year and more that Oswald has been a member of the family, I have learned more about owls and their habits than is contained in all the bird books ever written. All ornithologists know that owls, especially barred owls, can see in the daytime. But it was not until I had Oswald that I realized these birds cannot only see as well during the day as during the night, but can stare directly at the sun without even blinking.

I had often wondered why owls will insist upon hooting during the night when they are supposed to be hunting, thus warning all creatures of their presence. But I soon discovered that owls do not hoot when hunting and that they do not hunt or feed during the darker part of the night. At least, Oswald never does. He invariably becomes most active and feeds just at dawn and early in the evening and never dines during the night, although he doesn't hesitate to dine during the daytime.

Another interesting habit I have never seen mentioned in any book is that of hiding or storing any food he has left over from a meal. Such leftovers Oswald conceals carefully in a corner of his cage, often covering his store of reserve food with bits of paper or other trash. Mice, small birds, lizards and chunks of meat are swallowed whole, and it is truly astonishing what a large object Oswald can gulp down. When in Florida I fed him largely upon butcher birds which are very destructive to other birds, and Oswald swallowed these entire, merely pulling off a few of the large wing feathers before gulping them down head first.

On one occasion I found a dead blue jay and placed it in Oswald's cage. For a few moments he was actually terrified and kept as far from the dead jay as possible, his eyes fixed upon his hereditary foe and his funny pale-blue, cellophane like inner eyelids winking back and forth over his big, black eyes. But after a time his curiosity overcame his natural fear and he cautiously approached the dead jay.

At last, finding the bird made no move and did not even screech at him, he pounced upon it. The expression of surprise and delight that came over his face when he found he actually had a jay at his mercy was uproariously funny. And maybe he didn't sail into that dead jay! As if venting all his pent-up hatred of the hecklers of owls he tore the feathers from the jay, tossed them about and after biting and crushing the jay's body to pulp gulped it down and blinked at me as much as to say, :<Well that jay won't ever bother me again."

The power in Oswald's beak is incredible. He crushes the skull of a wood-chuck or a gray squirrel and tears off the comb of a rooster's head or the tough wattles of a turkey's head with ease.

When eating anything too large to be swallowed entire, Oswald always holds it in one foot exactly in the manner of a parrot. He will also reach out and grasp any object with one foot and quite frequently walks hand-over-hand along his perch or crawls over the netting of his cage in parrotlike manner. We often hear about "sleepy old owls," but Oswald sleeps the least of any bird I have ever known. Sometimes he will doze off, his head resting on his chest, but always with one eye open as the saying is, and he is as likely to take a cat nap or, perhaps I should say, an owl nap, in the night as during the day. The only time he really sleeps soundly is for an hour or so each evening. Do you suppose he puts his head under his wing like other birds? Not he! Oswald believes in being comfortable and relaxing when he snoozes. He lies down, crosswise on his perch, stretches his feet straight out behind him, rests himself on his wings and lets his head hang down. Although one might suppose this would be a most uncomfortable position for a bird, Oswald finds it otherwise, and often lies for an hour or more at a time across his perch, turning his head this way and that and apparently thoroughly enjoying his unique posture.

He is a most intelligent bird and I am not surprised that owls should always have been considered "wise." He knows his name and answers to it. He will "shake hands" when asked to do so, and he seems to understand everything we say to him. To be sure he has not yet learned to talk. That is, he does not utter intelligible words, but he will "talk back" and utter queer little sounds and syllables when we talk to him.

He is very "choosey" in making friends. One young man who is very fond of Oswald, has never been able to win his friendship.

Whenever he comes near, the owl puffs out his feathers, glares and snaps his beak. But another friend of the family pets and fondles Oswald and the owl "talks" to him and is very fond of the man. As a rule, Oswald likes children, but he hates one little girl who often visits us and will not permit her to go near his cage without snapping and showing anger. He is very docile with most people, however, and is not at all afraid of strangers and permits them to stroke and fondle his head.

He is a very curious bird and takes a most intense interest in everything going on near him. Apparently he cannot puzzle out the mystery of shoes and is always fascinated when a person removes them or slips overshoes off or on. He is also very fond of playing with bits of rope and will unravel a rope to the last fiber. Cardboard boxes delight him and he will pounce upon them savagely, pretending they are alive, and will play with them for hours at a time. It may seem funny to think of an owl walking and running about, but Oswald is very nimble on his feet. He runs swiftly and when he is feeling in a particularly playful mood he will hop and dance and stamp his feet in a most ludicrous manner.

Sometimes we take him from his cage and let him perch on a stand by a window. He never offers to move from it, but remains quite content watching passing pedestrians, automobiles and other vehicles. On one occasion, while Oswald was on his perch by the window, we gave him a dead mouse. Then he did a most astonishing thing. A short distance from his perch was a table and on it an empty plate. Holding the mouse in his beak, Oswald jumped to the table, placed the mouse on the plate and ate it. Then his meal over, he jumped back onto his perch. After that we scarcely would have been surprised if Oswald had picked up the morning paper and read the news.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.