Sunday, December 03, 2006

Owl In Heat

WARNING: This is not going to be a "G" rated post. This is real-life stuff that I have to deal with in order to try to satisfy Alice's urges and needs.

Ever since we got back from visiting Marge Gibson, Alice's rehabilitator, Alice has been exceedingly "receptive" to put it nicely. (She's been a Great "Horny" Owl to put it crudely.) So what exactly does this mean?

It means I don't have to do the long hooting sessions anymore! I can get away with a few minutes here and there.

It means that Alice follows me all over the house and hoots at my shins a lot.

It means that I have an owl nest on my dresser along with other potential nests in most rooms in our house.

It means that Alice now hoots in public on command (all I have to do is lean forward and hoot to her.) Pretty cool, huh?

This March, after the Festival of Owls which includes a visit from Marge, Alice got "receptive" for the first time. And I noticed that when she was in this mood she would repeatedly leave the last syllable off her hoot. Anytime she hooted repeatedly without that last syllable, she was ready to be mounted.

Now I'm not a male Great Horned Owl, so I can just fly over and land on her back like the wild ones do. I just put my hand on her back. If she's "receptive" she holds her head down, lowers her tail from the near-vertical hooting posture to almost horizontal, and her tail starts quivering. If I can contort myself to get a view up underneath her tail feathers, I can see the feathers have parted and her cloaca (the one and only out door on a bird) is swollen and making repeated kissing motions...hence the term "cloacal kiss."

This spring when Alice was in heat, once or twice a day seemed to satisfy her needs. Now she's more like a rabbit--she's interested several times a day. I think the past few days between my husband and I, we've had our hands on her back at least 4-6 times a day! (I'm sure my husband wishes he could just put his hand on my back and turn me on like that...)

But copulation is not a prolonged affair in Great Horned Owls. In the wild I don't think it lasts more than a few seconds, but Alice will tolerate up to maybe 20-30 seconds before she starts with the annoyed chitters or biting. Then, as horrible as it sounds (at least to women), we leave her. In the wild the male flies off after he's done the deed. Alice seems fine with it, even though it bothers me a bit.

Gopher seems to have become an aphrodisiac now. More than once Alice has stood on a leftover gopher head or butt and started in with the hoots minus a syllable, or with her clucky/nesty sounds. And yes, she's asking for the hand on the back thing, and shuts up after one of us has done the deed.

So why not just get a male Great Horned Owl and breed Alice?

1. Alice KNOWS she's a human, so if a Great Horned Owl gets close to her, she hisses and clacks her bill in a most threatening manner.

2. This would require a breeding permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. I don't think they're overly inclined to hand these out.

3. Where the heck do you get Great Horned Owl sperm? I know I could easily do the artificial insemination if I had the sperm, but I don't have any ideas where I could get any.

4. What about the kids? Would they grow up thinking they're humans or owls? Or would they be misprints...not associating with any species? Would the goal be to release them to the wild? Or would the goal be to keep them at least for several years to see how they compare vocally to Alice and their other parent? If they are to be kept, who would keep them?

As you can see, there are no easy answers here. Someday I might try to navigate this maze because so much could be learned about vocal development, regional variation in hooting, the genetics of subspecies coloration, etc.

So for now we have a very hormonal bird on our hands. I'm not sure how long it will last, but I'm hoping to get an egg or two out of the deal. They wouldn't be fertile, but at least I could observe up close how Alice cares for the eggs and get all her nesting vocalizations recorded. But, of course, we'd need Alice to be running ahead of schedule so that she's over and done with the egg thing before the Festival of Owls the first week in March. We wouldn't want her to miss her 10th hatch-day party! And yes, she is running ahead of schedule.

By the way, Alice says "Hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo." Literally. She just said it.

If you're up for the X-rated video of a cloacal kiss, Laura Erickson (also known as the Dr. Ruth of birds) has posted it on her blog at (It takes a while to load.)

Alice Attacks!

We've all heard that wild animals don't make good pets. And I've tried to go into all the reasons that owls don't make good pets, although I don't consider Alice a "pet" since she legally has to work for a living and I don't own her. At any rate, Alice took this one step further on November 20th.

We took a "family" trip to Antigo, WI to visit Marge Gibson, founder of the Raptor Education Group, and Alice's rehabilitator. The goal of the trip was to record some of Marge's captive Great Horned Owls for my vocal study, but just as important if not more so was to just spend some time visiting with Marge. Where else can I go overnight and bring along a husband and an owl?

After we got settled I got Alice set up tethered to a living room perch. She spent a long time bobbing her head til I thought it would come off, checking out everything. The Gibson's house should be very familiar to Alice, since she grew up with them and did spend much time in the living room. Alice seems to have a great memory of locations and individuals.

Marge's husband, Don, was in the living room, and Alice was pretty much ignoring him. Eventually she had enough of just looking--she wanted to explore on foot. So I stood in front of her to keep her from trying to jump to the floor.

At this point Marge walked into the living room. Alice immediately flew to the lamp just in front of Marge and started hooting. (Thank goodness the lamp had a very heavy base so it didn't tip over!) I thought Alice was still in the "get down and explore" mode, so I picked her up and put her back on her perch.

Then Marge walked around behind me, and the hoots kept coming, and Alice bated (tried to fly) yet again toward Marge. She was tethered too short to get to her.

At this point Marge put on a glove to pick Alice up to soothe her, but Alice nailed Marge's glove with her foot. It was at this point that we realized something was up. I grabbed Alice's leash and held it tight.

Wherever Marge walked, Alice turned to face her and kept hooting a blue streak at her. Alice's ear tufts were STRAIGHT up and her head feathers were compressed. Not a friendly sign.

She tried once more to fly at Marge, but I held her leash short and tight. There was no denying it--Alice was trying to attack Marge.

Given her behavior as a very disrespectful guest (especially considering that Marge is the person who saved her life!), Alice was banished to a downstairs pen that had been cleared out for her. Her hooting went on anytime she heard or saw anyone.

I went down for periodic visits as much to soothe Alice as to soothe myself. She had NEVER tried to attack anyone before in her 9.5 years! Each time I approached her pen, she started hooting like crazy. When I went in and sat down, she literally crawled into my lap and tried to tuck her head under my arms, all the while hooting.

Soon I realized that during some of these intense hooting sessions Alice was dropping the last syllable off her hoot. I've come to assume this means she's "receptive"...or ready to be mounted. Sure enough, I could put my hand on her back (or cuddle her, hug her, or do all the other things I'd love to do to her that she doesn't allow...except when she's "in heat.") So I took full advantage of it.

The next day Marge sat me down for a serious talk. She explained that she was not in the least bit offended that Alice tried to attack her. Every bird is an individual, and they all have their own likes and dislikes, even though we may not understand them.

But the key issue was that human imprinted Great Horned Owls like Alice have a reputation for getting really nasty as they get older. Alice had already footed me for the first time this summer (when I inadvertently got my hand too close to a cached gopher head), and this just reaffirmed her aggressive streak. From here on out, Marge explained, Alice will be a changed bird. There's no going back to what she was...kind of like a belligerent teenager who's hormones have kicked in.

So to keep things under control, it's absolutely necessary that I maintain the upper hand with Alice and be strict (which I've started to do already.) And absolutely imperative is that I never let anyone get close enough to Alice for her to have the chance to attack. Because if she does ever attack someone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would likely be there in a heartbeat to "deal with her"...which could potentially be the worst that could be imagined.

This was very hard but very important stuff for me to hear. From here on out I will be much more careful about how close I allow others to get to Alice. Although I know that Alice sees Marge very differently from other people (since Marge is the human that Alice had her first "relationship" with), I don't know what's going on inside Alice's head or what else might trigger an unexpected attack.

When we were leaving Marge and Don's house, Alice completely ignored Marge! We didn't expect that, but then Marge suggested that part of what upset Alice so much may have been that she was concerned I was going to leave her with Marge, and now that she saw we were going home she was OK again. Who knows, but it sounds plausible to me.

And just as Marge predicted, Alice is a changed bird. She hooted intermittently the whole 5 hour drive home, even though she has NEVER hooted in the car before. And she's now exceedingly "receptive", "in heat", or whatever you want to call it. (More on that in the next e-mail.)

Moral of the story: even human imprinted owls are still wild animals, no matter how cute, interesting, and wonderful!