On Birds: Owl Eyes, Acceptance, and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia

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Some of my most pleasurable experiences have been while birding and I love seeing birds on book covers, so you can imagine how happy I was to see this feature on birds on book covers–some stunning designs, including my own Acceptance. Even just in the context of book design you can see how various and interesting birds can be.

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Admittedly, I’m a rank amateur as a birder—sans scope, for example, and also sans the patience to stand for hours in a blind. But I kept a birding journal until I was about 14 years old and have always bought and used birding guides. I’ve also always admired the intensity and devotion of birders and the ambition behind the idea of doing a Big Year. For a period of a few years as an adult I hung out with birders and shared their enthusiasms. But our paths diverged when it became clear that I was someone with an abiding love of hiking who just enjoyed bird watching on the side. The two types are not always compatible.

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(Two of the Academy’s owls, from the behind-the-scenes tour.)

This year, though, has brought birds back to me in a big way—first because they form an important part of my novel Acceptance, but also because touring behind the novels has led me to birds. Especially owls, and especially the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. There, I was fortunate enough to have a behind-the-scenes tour led by Jill Sybesma and documented by photographer Kyle Cassidy. Chris Urie from Geekadelphia was kind enough to set it up.

Sybesma is the Manager of Adult and Strategic Programs and the creator of the science and film program Mega-Bad Movie Night, and co-lead on science cafe programs like Science on Tap and Nerd Nite Philly held in two locations in the city. In her free time at work, she’s “also a Teacher Naturalist which means I get to handle birds of prey, skunks, alligators, scorpions and other amazing animals, but my favorite are the owls.”

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(Alyson Sinclair, FSG’s publicist for the Southern Reach novels is a birder too–and sent me this photo of an owl taken while hiking.)

I totally understand about the owls. Getting to see a great horned owl up close and also screech owls and barn owls was fascinating—both for the differences in personality between the species and because the texture of their feathers is amazing. There’s no substitute for being able to watch an owl close-up like that, and I’m grateful to Jill for letting me have that experience. I still can’t get over how unreal the horned owl’s feathers looked, how perfect the patterns. The expressiveness of a barn owl’s face is also unforgettable, as is the defiant tenacity of the tiny screech owls.

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(Screech owl, behind-the-scenes, reacting to my presence.)

Somehow this experience was very different from encountering horned owls in the wild. A local neighborhood park with a pond has a very vocal great horned owl population and of an evening I will often hear them basically hooting and hollerin’. On rare occasions I will see them overhead, staring down at me from branches. In one amazing instance, I came across a creature I could not at first recognize, around dusk, and was astonished to find that it was two animals not one: a tortoise with a horned owl atop its back, trying to get at the tortoise’s soft bits! The owl was so engrossed in its task that it didn’t notice me until I was standing right next to it. At that point, the owl swiveled its head to look over at me and took the measure of me and only with great reluctance flew off into the trees. I would’ve left it to its task, except I was afraid some other passerby might not be as owl-friendly.

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(Kyle Cassidy photo of author and owl)

I related this anecdote to Sybesma, who in turn passed back some amazing facts about owls. I didn’t know that ears in some owls aren’t the same size and sometimes not even at the same height on the sides of their heads. This asymmetry actually gives them better hearing. Even the flat faces of owls help them to channel sound. Eye tubes rather than eye balls mean that owls have to swivel their heads because they can’t move their eyes. Farsighted, they “see” close-up using their beak and foot feathers. In a sense, owls have eyes in their feet!

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(Me, Jill Sybesma, and the barn owl that was part of my Southern Reach event at the Free Library in Philly. The horned owl is very old and not up for these kinds of visits. Jill also very carefully monitors the stress levels of the owls during events. Photo by Chris Urie)

All of this information thankfully didn’t contradict anything in my depiction of owls in Acceptance. My own contribution to owls in literature starts out this way, combining personal observation with a hiking experience of mine that included cormorants:

On one outstretched branch, the unlikely silhouette of a common horned owl with sharp tufted ears: rustbrown face with white feathers at chin and throat, mottled gray- and- brown body. My loud approach should have alarmed it, but this owl just perched there, surrounded by the cormorants sunning themselves. An unnatural scene, to me, and it brought me up short.

I thought at first the owl must be hurt, more so when I came closer and it still didn’t move, unlike the whirling circle of cormorants that, complaining bitterly, flew away, a long low line over the water, exiled to rove, restless. Any other owl would have taken wing and disappeared back into the forest. But instead, it remained glued to the ridged, scaly bark of the branch, staring out at the fading sun with enormous eyes.

Even when I stood right beside the tree, awkward on the rocks, the owl did not fly, did not look over at me. Injured or dying, I thought again, but cautious, ready to retreat, because an owl can be a dangerous animal. This one was huge, four pounds at least, despite its hollow bones, lightweight feathers. But nothing I had done had yet provoked it, and so I stood there as the sun began to set, the owl beside me. I had studied owls early in my career and knew that neuroses were unknown among them as opposed to other, more intelligent bird species. Most owls are also beautiful, along with another quality that is hard to define but registers as calm in the observer. There was such a hush upon that beach, and one that didn’t register with me as sinister.

At dusk, the owl turned its fierce yellow gaze upon me at last, and with the tip of its outstretched wing brushing against my face, the bird launched itself into the air in a smooth, silent arc that sent it off toward the forest behind me.

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(Photo by Chris Urie.)

***

I say I’m an amateur birder, more of a hiker, but the truth is that most of my hikes have been defined by the birds I’ve seen, whether spotting a rare limpkin near-invisible against marsh-flat reeds or turning a corner to find two bald eagles not five feet away perched precarious on some bushes. Sometimes my wife and I joke that Acceptance is a Birder’s Guide to the Southern Reach, given how many birds are mentioned in the novel (over 50). This aspect has even led to someone from the national offices of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asking if I’d come to do a presentation. Which is just highlights one of the most wonderful things about the publication of these novels: it’s allowed me to focus on and write about such passions as biology, ecology, the wilderness, our relationship to animals, and, of course, birds.

If you’re ever in Philly, I highly recommend the Academy of Natural Sciences. The birds they keep are all injured in some way or were given up by individuals who shouldn’t have tried to keep them as pets in the first place. A turkey vulture too socialized to people to return to the wild stands out in particular as lucky to be at the Academy, among experts who understand her particular situation.

Should you go, you might even run into Sybesma, who is currently “developing two new programs in 2015, an Overnight for Adults (exactly how it sounds) and an evening program focused on art and science.” Online she can be found at @jillsybesma on Twitter, Facebook and IG at @jsybs. The Academy is @acadnatsci on twitter and IG and is on facebook.

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(The barn owl, wings aflutter, looking as delicate as a moth. I can’t recall who took this photo; contact me and I’ll add the credit.)