For the Birds Radio Program: Frozen Mice for Archimedes

Original Air Date: May 13, 1996 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Nov. 17, 2006; Nov. 9, 2005

Laura defrosts a mouse every single night for her education screech owl Archimedes. (This was a red-phase screech owl that Laura had before she got the gray one that she had for 17 years.)

Duration: 4′13″


I’m writing this at 12 midnight. About a half hour ago, I went downstairs to the freezer, pulled out a plastic zip-lock bag, unzipped it and took out a little wad of aluminum foil. I unwrapped the foil, and found myself holding a dead mouse, frozen solid. I’ve been thawing it on my desk, and now, finally, it’s suppertime for Archimedes.

Archimedes is an Eastern Screech-Owl I am licensed to keep for education. He’s pretty low­ maintenance, living free in my office, where he’s yet to perch or poop on my computer . He mainly sits on the tops of my bookshelves, which are covered in long sheets of Astroturf, comfortable and safe for his feet and easy to clean. He also perches on a couple of cat scratching posts.

Once in a while he flies over to my lovebird Rosie’s cage, and even though wild screech owls frequently eat birds Rosie’s size, Archimedes doesn’t seem to eye the little lovebird as a potential meal, and Rosie doesn’t seem the least bit afraid of him. Archimedes also spends a lot of time perched next to my gerbils’ cage, watching them with curiosity. Of course, I have trouble telling where curiosity ends and yearning begins, so I make sure the cage cover is well secured. Like Rosie, the gerbils don’t seem at all nervous with an owl right above them. I presume Archimedes has as much killer instinct as a cat, but I’m not going to test the theory on Digger and Sparky.

Being a quasi-vegetarian myself, as well as rather a devoted fan of most rodents, you’d think I’d have a hard time defrosting a mouse every night. This dead one came courtesy of Rus and Cindy Hurt in Port Wing, Wisconsin–as summer wanes and mice start sneaking indoors, they set their traps, and they’ve been wrapping the ones they catch in discreet little packages and saving them for Archimedes. He prefers these fresh-caught wild mice enormously over the frozen white laboratory mice I keep as my emergency back-up supply. Somehow their partially dissected bodies seem sadder, and are apparently less flavorful, than more natural fare. For a while I considered getting some generic mice from a pet store, but every time I went over to the cages to get some, a mouse or two would make eye contact, and no way could I do it after that. I’m not squeamish–just too darned maternal.

It’s actually lucky I’m not squeamish. Every other owl I’ve handled has eaten its mice whole. Archimedes acts more like a hawk. First he pops off the head, then takes the rest of the body in three or four long, messy bites. The feathers around his beak and on his talons get rather goopy, which gives me a clearer understanding of why normal owls swallow the whole thing. Hawks, with their relatively long beaks that extend away from their facial feathers, and their unfeathered feet, can better afford to tear into their prey.

You’d think that after watching this ugly meal scene night after night, I’d get a little disenchanted with Archimedes. But somehow these yucky meals transform themselves through some miracle of biology into a soft little owl who keeps me company while I’m working, staring at me through big yellow eyes. He loves the food I prepare for him, and seems genuinely happy that I’m no Martha Stewart. He listens to my political views, seems sympathetic, and never argues. Thawing a mouse or two every day is a small price to pay for such a friend.