For the Birds Radio Program: "Cuteness" in an Injured Saw-whet Owl (UDY)

Original Air Date: March 29, 1999

Laura’s taking care of an injured Saw-whet Owl and wishing she could keep it until it was recovered. (I’m estimating the year because of the reference to Linda Tripp.)

I KNOW I did one on this date (or it’s a repeat) Why do we think some birds are “cute”? 4:29

Audio missing


I’m writing this at my desk, sitting next to a Saw-whet Owl. He was found in the middle of a road a couple of days ago, and I’m taking him to the Raptor Center tomorrow. Meanwhile, he’s looking at me, and I’m looking at him, and it’s darned hard to get any work accomplished. He has an injured eye-lid, a scratched cornea, and a cataract on his left eye. I don’t know if he was hit by a car or what—his wings seem healthy and intact, and although he’s a little weak and out of sorts, he’s alert most of the time and surprisingly affectionate, rubbing his head on my finger and taking chopped up mouse parts out of my hands in a gentle, confiding way.

When I brought him to my veterinarian’s for a quick look-over, all the technicians and aides came in for a peek, and everyone oohed and ahhed over him, using words like “cute,” “adorable,” “endearing,” and “sweet.” I myself have used those same words. Saw-whet eyes are relatively large compared to their heads, and their heads relatively big compared to their bodies. These two basic size ratios are similar to those of human babies, and something deep within most of us recognizes babies and baby-like creatures as cute and endearing.

Of course this own is not a baby. You can’t age adult saw-whets—as far as I can tell, it could be anywhere from one to ten years old—but it’s definitely an adult. It takes itself seriously, carrying itself with the dignified bearing of an owl, but there is a lot we humans can never know about the lives of birds. For all I know, this may be the Linda Tripp or the Saddam Hussein of the owl world, but to my eyes and the eyes of everyone else who sees it, it’s both cute and sweet even as it devours quartered mice. That baby face looks into mine and seems to share the sense of recognition.

I’m dreading saying goodbye to this little creature and entrusting him to the Raptor Center. It’s a state-of-the-art facility, but its size is a mixed blessing. They follow the current trend of minimizing handling of raptors, a policy that was designed to prevent birds from bonding or imprinting on their human handlers or becoming too tame. But owls are stressed out when incarcerated in cages, and when caretakers prohibit bonding the owls are bewildered and frightened every time they are fed. Careful handling calms them and helps them to accept their temporary bondage with less stress, so they are more likely to recover quickly. This little owl is free to be anywhere it wants in my large office, but it chooses to spend its time on the back of a folding chair right next to me, preening and making other comfort movements when I talk or sing to it. I feel sad that once it gets down to the Raptor Center, it will be banished to a cage where it will receive food and medical care to attend to its body, but nothing to sustain its soul and calm its fears. I know laws protecting migratory birds are good and valid, but I’m a little angry that banishing this little bird to an impersonal facility is my only legal choice.

The only time I ever criticized their policy was a couple of years ago when I delivered a baby saw-whet to them that was very sick but responding well to TLC. I told them it was clearly sick but doing well with a lot of contact and attention. They scolded me for falling victim to the Bambi complex and overhandling it. They put it under their normal minimal handling routine but failed to take a routine blood sample, and the owl ended up dying a few days later from an easily treatable blood parasite. They felt really bad about it, and I’m fervently hoping that they’ve learned from their mistake and will give this adorable, cute, endearing, sweet, dignified, mature little owl the attention and the love it deserves. Maybe the staff at the Raptor Center should watch a video of Patch Adams? Or at least Dr. Doolittle.