For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Owl

Original Air Date: July 22, 1996

Today Laura Erickson tells the story of Archimedes, the baby saw-whet owl. 4:12

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Last week I had a magical experience. On Monday, someone from the D.N.R. brought Dave and Molly Evans a baby Saw-whet Owl rescued from a dog at the Silver Bay Airport. Dave was off banding eagles and Molly was suffering from horrendous back problems, so she sent him to me to hold until Thursday morning, when one of the Hawk Ridge banders was to take him to the Raptor Center.

There is nothing in the universe more endearing than a Saw-whet Owl, and babies are the dearest of all. My kids instantly fell in love this two-ounce mite, who Joey named Archimedes.

He was badly dehydrated, so his eyelids were droopy and misshapen, and he looked very unhappy. Baby owls are helpless, especially against a predator that weighs 1000 times their weight—all this one did was crouch low and snap his bill, but as soon as I gave him a few drops of Pedialyte and a couple of big wads of chicken baby food, he knew he was safe. Within a day his eyes were back to normal, and he was gulping down big chunks of mouse. Yes, I said mouse. Baby food works briefly in an emergency, but an owl’s unique digestive tract requires fur and bones as well as actual meat.

I’ve stopped eating meat myself this year, and I was never a killer or a butcher—I even take bees outside rather than kill them—and I’m especially partial to little rodents, but suddenly I found myself chopping up frozen and thawed mice that Molly had given me to feed this hungry little baby. It was a gruesome task—one I never thought I’d be capable of—but this hungry little guy looked at me with desperate eyes, and apparently my estrogen levels responded. I found myself wondering if that farmer’s wife who cut off the tails of the three blind mice wasn’t just trying to feed a baby owl.

Molly’s mice were way too big for Archimedes to manage by himself—they looked almost more like young rats. But one morning while he was watching me cut off the bottom third of a big mouse and start cutting the leg off, he suddenly got either impatient or greedy and grabbed the huge front—fully 2/3 of the mouse. I told him that was way too big for a little baby, and tried to take it from him, but he politely turned his back on me. Little owls swallow their prey whole, and that was a tall order with such a big mouse, but little by little the mouse disappeared into Archimedes’ capacious mouth and throat. I can’t say he inched it down—millimetered it is more accurate. It took a full 10 minutes to finally swallow it. Then he turned toward me, gave me a superior look, and preened contentedly.

Archimedes only ate a couple of times a day. He spent the rest of his time following me from room to room—if I left without him, he fluttered to the floor and waddled behind me—taking an interest in everything I did. Sometimes I set him in my bedroom window, where he studied my growing chickadee family with interest. Whenever the chickadees flew past at close range, he made a soft little rattle call, similar in quality to the machine gun rattle an indoor cat makes when it sees birds at close range through a window. When sitting on my hand, Archimedes would rub his head or chin against my finger and seemed especially happy when I gently scratched his face or throat. By Thursday morning, when I brought him back to Molly’s for his journey to the Raptor Center, I was thoroughly imprinted. They’ll make him a wild bird again, and send him back to the Silver Bay area for release. I’m glad he’ll live the life Saw-whet Owls are supposed to live, but I’m sure gonna miss him.