For the Birds Radio Program: IBM Owl

Original Air Date: Jan. 29, 1997

A commercial promising a copy of the World Book Encyclopedia on a CD-Rom for every IBM computer sold has ruffled a lot of feathers. It shows a little girl picking up an injured Great Horned Owl and finding out what to do with her World Book CD-Rom. 4:02

Audio missing


As a birder of the 90’s on board the information superhighway, I keep track of what birds are showing up all over the country on the national bird chat network. Oddly, the bird people have been talking about lately isn’t a rare species, and as it turns out isn’t even wild–it’s the Great Horned Owl that was appearing on commercials for the World Book CD-Rom that comes with new IBM computers.

In the commercial, a little girl discovers an injured owl which she picks up and carries home. She and her parents look up owl rehabilitation on their computer and find everything they need to know on this one CD-Rom to restore the bird to health and release it.

Of course, there are several things wrong with this scenario. First, neither a little kid nor a grown-up should ever handle a Great Horned Owl, even a very hurt one, without serious protection. These owls’ talons are designed to instantly kill medium-sized mammals, and the grasp is strong enough to carry a rabbit without dropping it. If a Great Homed Owl sinks its foot into a hand or arm, even one encased in leather gloves, it may cause permanent nerve or muscle damage. Some experienced banders have been scarred for life in close encounters with Great Horned Owls. The commercial makes these winged tigers seem as innocuous as teddy bears, . unconscionably and irresponsibly encouraging children to place themselves in danger.

Also bad was how the commercial encouraged people to put individual birds in danger. It’s absurd to think that any general interest CD-Rom could have the information necessary to heal or cure an injured bird. The skills necessary for pinning and setting bones are hardly acquired from an encyclopedia. A raptor with a broken wing must be attended to by a veterinarian if it is ever going to fly and hunt successfully again. Owls also require intact mice or other animals complete with fur or feathers and bones to protect them from crop diseases. In the first version of the commercial, the owl stayed in a cage even though feathers fray and break when pressed against metal or sometimes even wood bars.

There are so many complexities involved in rehabilitation that it is against state and federal law for a person to rehabilitate any wild bird without proper permits. Authorities are unlikely to prosecute a person who had no alternative when confronted with an injured creature, but there are so many wildlife rehabilitation facilities now available throughout the country that it is not only illegal but also just plain wrong to clumsily experiment on a hurt raptor when it could easily be brought to a center where it could receive state-of-the-art care.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the commercial, and so many people complained that it was eventually pulled. It’s too bad that the people who designed the commercial don’t watch Sesame Street–in one segment some children find a hurt robin. They bring it to a nature center where it is properly cared for. They volunteer to help with chores at the center. They come back the day their bird is to be released, and one of them gets to actually set the little robin free. An encyclopedia CD-Rom that explained how to bring a bird to a licensed facility, and why these places need donations of time and money–now THAT would be an encyclopedia worth having.