Sunday, July 30, 2006


It was bound to happen sooner or later. It just happened later than sooner. After having Alice for nearly eight years, she finally footed me.

"Footed" is the term used when someone is grabbed by a hawk or owl's talons, usually doing some damage in the process. Alice has certainly grabbed me with her talons before, but it's never been with the intention of hurting me. This time there was some intention and some damage.

Alice and I work "second shift" on Saturdays, leaving for work at the Houston Nature Center around noon. Owls are birds of routine, and Alice has one particular perch that I'm allowed to pick her up from to take her to work. If she's on any other perch in her room, I have to pretend like I'm trying to pick her up, she gets annoyed, and sooner or later she jumps/flies to the appropriate perch.

Yesterday Alice was snoozing on her nest basket when it was time to leave for work at noon. She doesn't like stepping forward, just stepping backward, so I put my gloved left hand behind her. She got agitated and looked like she was going to hop to another side of her basket, so I put my ungloved right hand behind her. I've done this a million times.

This time she pounced on my right arm and nailed it. It involved talons and beak, but happened so fast I can't even remember where she went from my arm, but I think it was to the correct perch.

Absolutely stunned, I immediately saw why Alice had attacked me: she had a big, fat, juicy, gopher head cached in the back of her nest. My right hand was headed straight towards it when she footed me.

Since Alice was now in position and I wasn't really bleeding, I picked her up on my glove and headed downstairs to put her leash on. (She always hops onto my husband's kitchen chair for this procedure.)

When she was on the chair, I inspected my arm. One talon cut on the forearm and one of the back of my hand, neither bleeding (plus some skin missing on my thumb from her beak). Not good, since if the talons went in much at all, punctures like this can get infected. I squeezed some blood out, washed the cuts with soap and water, hit them with some rubbing alcohol, then bandaged them up so I didn't get blood on my clothes. And off we went to work.

Soon I noticed my hand didn't want to work as well as it should. Oddly enough, the area just forward of the cut on my hand was swollen (not where the talon went in), and was tender. So I assume that even though the talon only left a very small hole, it went into the muscle a ways.

Three hours later I was peeling a grapefruit with my pocket knife and sliced my thumb on the same hand. About then I was ready to go home and start the day over. Jeepers!

My hand is still swollen today, but my forearm is fine. I'll be watching my hand for any signs of infection. This is just one of the hazards of working with owls that was bound to happen sooner or later. I'm surprised it wasn't an injured wild owl that got me first. I guess I need to keep closer tabs on those gopher heads!

In the photo you'll notice the (non-Alice) scrape on my left hand before you notice the very minor looking mark on my right hand and the swelling. The talon mark is on the back of my right hand below my first and second fingers. Looks pretty insignificant, other than the swelling....

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Heart Rate

Normal Great Horned Owls aren't above putting cats on their menu. Alice is anything but normal. She's terrified of cats.

She proved just how much cats freak her out a few years ago. My normal routine to take her to work involves going up to her room, getting her onto the correct perch (according to Alice there's only one "correct" perch to pick her up from), take her downstairs, she hops onto my husband's kitchen chair, I tie her leash to the leather jesses always on her ankles, and away we go.

Well, a few years ago she started flying back up to the hall railing every time I tried to take her downstairs. She made it very clear she wasn't going anywhere. I had my suspicions that the root of the problem was a stray cat that had started hanging around our yard. It sometimes hung around the bird feeders, and I'm sure Alice had seen it kill birds.

I was right. My husband "took care of" the stray cat and I had no more troubles getting Alice to go to work.

Our (outside) dog died last year, making Alice a pretty happy camper (she's deathly afraid of all dogs of all sizes.) But about a month after he died, a stray cat moved onto our property. It eventually got tame, despite rebuffing all contact with the cat for Alice's sake. Then a second cat moved in and the same thing happened...wild at first, but then it tamed down with no encouragement from us. Both are tomcats and they fight every day. And I've stopped feeding birds.

These cats bother Alice. Every time I take her out to the car to go to work, the cats are right there at my feet. Alice puffs up and does defense displays, hisses at them, etc., but the cats are too dumb to be scared of her!! How's that for sick and twisted: a Great Horned Owl that's deathly afraid of two cats who aren't afraid of the Great Horned Owl.

I realized just how much these cats are bothering Alice one morning when there happened to be no appliances, heat, air conditioning, or anything making any sound at all in the house. As she hopped onto the back of Ken's chair I could hear her heart pounding!

Her heart was just racing. It was very difficult to count the beats per minute, but I tried a few times and always got between 50-60 beats per 10 seconds. That's about 330 beats per minute! (Go to to hear it.)

That seemed really high to me, but I didn't know what her resting heart rate was for comparison. So a couple of times at work when it was perfectly silent and nothing mechanical was running, I was able to put my ear against her chest while she snoozed on her perch. This didn't seem to bother her in the least, and I came up with 15 beats per 10 seconds, or only 90 beats per minute. Wow, what a difference from the "cat heart rate"!

But birds have amazing cardiovascular abilities...way beyond what us mere humans can do. So I did a little checking to see what heart rate information I could find on other birds.

One study gave resting heart rates for three Snowy Owls (fairly close relatives of Great Horned Owls) outdoors in the winter in a range from 131-222 beats per minute (BPM). Another study gave a resting heart rate for the Ural Owl at about 215 BPM, with an excited heart rate (while being restrained) at 395 BPM. The same study showed resting and excited heart rates for Short-eared Owls at 224 and 445 BPM respectively. The excited heart rates were close to 200% higher than resting.

Alice is bigger than both Ural and Short-eared Owls, which would likely give her a lower heart rate. And she's housed at comfortable room temperature for humans (68-75 degrees Fahrenheit), accounting for some of the difference between her and these reports. Her heart rate increase from resting to excited, though, is approximately 367%. Uff da!

Not like this is the most scientific study ever done by any stretch of the imagination, but Alice is showing a major heart rate response to her fear of cats.

Anyone want a cat??? My husband has gotten to know these two and is reluctant to "take care of them".....

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Alice's Baby X-rays

Next year Alice will turn the big 1-0, and as always, we'll have a "hatch-day" party for her at the Festival of Owls the first weekend in March. In honor of this milestone in Alice's life, her rehabilitator, Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, WI, has agreed to present a special program about the first year and a half of Alice's life which was spent with Marge.

I asked Marge about the possibility of tracking down Alice's baby X-rays that show how badly she messed up her wing that day in 1997 when she fell 60 feet out of her nest, down through a pine tree, and landed on the frozen ground below when she was just three weeks old. Marge had contacted the Antigo Veterinary Clinic looking for other X-rays not long before, and was told that they are not kept after five years, so she didn't think it was possible. Besides, at the time Alice was injured, she was just an anonymous injured owlet

I have no idea why I contacted the vet clinic myself to inquire about Alice's X-rays. Maybe it's because I'm stubborn. But I did call them. I was able to give them the information about species, injury, and approximate date, and I was told they'd get back to me.

A couple of days later my intern at the Houston Nature Center left a message for me: the Antigo Vet Clinic had called. They found the X-ray and would put it in the mail for us to keep. Over nine years later they still had the X-ray! Needless to say I was ecstatic.

Of course I opened the package the second it arrived. It wasn't a full body was kind of in two parts. The lower part showed Alice's wingspread and head, and the upper part had her leg on it. Two exposures in one?? I'm not sure how they do these things....

But Alice's injury was plainly visible: her left elbow was definitely dislocated and swollen. Marge remembers there being a break at the end of the humerus also, but I can't see it. Not that I'm trained to read X-rays either! Alice's current vet, Dr. Laura Johnson in LaCrosse, WI, hasn't had time to look at the X-ray yet to give her professional opinion.

At any rate, now you can see for yourself why Alice is "doomed" to a posh life of air conditioning, favorite foods every night, and commuting to work.