For the Birds Radio Program: Predation

Original Air Date: April 12, 1996

How can we empathize with both mouse and owl? (4:10) Date verified.

Audio missing


Many of us humans empathize with both owls and mice. This winter, as owls desperately tried to reach mice under crusted snow, I felt sad that they didn’t know about my basement, where deer mice seemed to be thriving in my bird seed bin. I kicked them outside, except during cold spells when I took pity and temporarily harbored a few in an aquarium. One is now my personal pet, entertaining me with her perky expression and satellite-dish ears. Deer mice are not only owl food—they’re also shrike, hawk, weasel, fox, coyote, and cat food—so they’ re mistrustful and show little curiosity, but my little one is becoming pleasingly confiding when “Mrs. Hands” appears in her cage. Even though I like mice, the few times I’ve watched owls take them in the wild, l haven’t felt particularly sorry for the mice.

In March, I held a Boreal Owl overnight to transport to the Raptor Center. After holding that emaciated creature in my hands, its desperate eyes meeting my own, I had no qualms about getting a live mouse from Dave Evans to feed it. The owl killed the mouse instantly but was too weak to eat it—it could only manage lactated Ringer’s solution mixed with baby food.

Dave sent me home with another live mouse, but I must admit my relief when the owl didn’t take it. I didn’t feel sorry for the dead mouse even though it was wasted—all my sympathies were with the owl. If another starving owl appeared today, l probably could feed it live mice, but not my mouse.

Something happens to many of us humans when our eyes meet the eyes of another creature—even a mouse. In the movie Babe, the moment the farmer and the pig regarded each other, “for a fleeting moment something passed between them, a faint sense of some common destiny.” We humans, as omnivores who nurture our own helpless young, come by our empathy for both predator and prey naturally.

When I’m watching a flock of waxwings swirling through the sky above the Lakewood Pumping Station, I feel a surge of surprised outrage when a Merlin rushes in to grab one. But when I’m watching a Merlin cruise at top speed through the air and suddenly dive-bomb some waxwings, I feel a thrill of excitement and appreciation.

This ambivalence holds a delicate, uneasy balance—! know birders who’ve thrown rocks at owls or hawks attacking smaller birds, and I also know one guy who normally loves little birds yet once grabbed a live chickadee to offer to a hungry Boreal Owl in his yard. Although most of us have done neither, we can probably envision at least one scenario in which we could be the rock thrower or maybe even the chickadee killer. A few birders glorify predation, taking macabre pleasure in the bloody work, but most of us find the killing repugnant, even if necessary and good. I’m grateful I wasn’t with Kim Eckert when he watched a Boreal Owl take on a flying squirrel—the owl ultimately won, but it was a long, hard-fought battle and I don’ t know where my sympathies would have fallen.

I never before considered keeping an owl in my house for any length of time, but after my Boreal Owl experience, I’ve decided to apply for a permit to keep an unreleasable Boreal or Saw-whet Owl for educational programs. I simply couldn’t raise mice, or even keep them a few days, without developing compassion for them, which is inconsistent with keeping an owl.

Fortunately, captive owls readily take to dead mice—I don’t mind defrosting them, though my family may want me to get my own personal kitchen. Meanwhile, my little deer mouse is thriving. I’m calling her “Reprieve.”