Luisa Rivera for Yale Environment 360

Mutual Healing: Lessons Learned from an Orphaned Owl

Ecologist Carl Safina took in an orphaned owl and planned to care for it until it was ready live on its own in the wild. As the Covid pandemic settled in, he found his deepening connection with the owl, nicknamed Alfie, provided solace through an isolating, disorienting time.

The photo in the text messag­­e, from a wildlife rehabilitator friend, looked like a wet washcloth. The text explained that this was a baby bird, found on the ground. No nest in sight. My own experience as a rehabilitator led me to conclude that if this bird was still alive, it would be a surprise.

The barely living baby’s dirt-matted down was full of fly eggs. In a matter of hours those eggs would hatch; maggots would tunnel into the bird. The poor chick was about to be eaten alive.

Washed, warmed, and stabilized, the chick remained so bedraggled that it wasn’t obvious what kind of bird this was. Based on size — the little being fit into one’s palm — I figured that this tiny baby whose luck had just turned a corner must be an eastern screech owl. They nest in dark, secure tree cavities. Somehow, this owlet had been dragged and dropped. Perhaps by a crow? Was this disheveled nestling the only survivor?

And so it came to be that I, along with my wife Patricia, took in this babe, who began a new phase of life — a growing, thriving phase.

The plan for Alfie was that she’d be with us for a couple of weeks and then, at her own pace, would find her independence.

Like all babies, this new owl didn’t arrive with instructions. But we had a parenting philosophy. We frequently let her join us whether in the back yard or in the kitchen. We wanted plenty of stimulation and freedom of movement to develop an active mind and a strong body. Meanwhile, we’d back her up, we’d keep her safe and well.

Our dogs, Chula and Jude, were pre-adapted to being friendly with small birds who could only flutter. They had grown up around our two little rescued parrots as well as our small flock of free-roving chickens.

We named the owl Alfie, which sounded like “owlfie.” We did not have a way of knowing gender, but we started calling Alfie “she.” She was not confined. Patricia and I had planned to simply let her choose, like a normal wild bird, to widen her circle of independence when she attained the power of flight. Allowing a young creature to come and go, and backing them up while they are trying to figure out what to do and what to avoid — without natural parents to model how to survive — is called a “soft release.”

Alfie, rescued near death.

Alfie, rescued near death. Carl Safina

The plan for Alfie was that she’d be with us for a couple of weeks, and then at her own pace would find her independence. Parent owls care for and feed their young for many weeks after they leave the nest. With parental backup giving them the needed time, young fledgers sharpen new skills while learning how to become wild. We planned to mimic that.

But soon a problem emerged. Actually, the problem was in what failed to emerge: feathers crucial for flight. While her main flight-powering “primary” feathers of both wings had grown out beautifully, none of the other flight feathers were coming. Two-thirds of each wing was essentially bare. Her flight was delayed. Perhaps indefinitely.

Fortunately, in early autumn Alfie molted fully — wings, body, tail. She exchanged her fluffy fledgling flannel pajamas for a sleek new set of adult feathers. Her wing feathers grew out perfectly, and by mid-autumn she was simply stunning. I could hardly take my eyes off her.

With all her wing feathers grown in perfectly, Alfie could now fly well. But by late October, the field crickets’ calls were slowing. Letting her wander off now, into a world with temperatures getting too cool for crickets, moths, and other insect prey seemed a worsening prospect. Inexperienced as she was, she would be unlikely to find enough to eat.

So I prepared the entire outdoor portion of our chicken coop for her. And there, content and safe from the possibility of starvation, she spent the winter. She was comfortable. I was not. An owl who is not out doing owly things is just a bird in a cage.

When summer finally returned I started letting Alfie fly from the coop to me for food. I wanted to get her oriented to a wider view.

My main fear had been that Alfie, not having learned how to hunt, would wander off and starve.

One day I opened the door of the coop, walked out about 10 paces, turned, and raised my arm, offering her a morning meal. She fluttered out and landed on my arm. But she did not take the food. Instead, those big eyes of hers scanned the wider world, scanned the trees, scanned the sky. Taking it all in.

I was pulling off a little piece to hand-feed her and refocus her attention when she flew into a maple on the side of the yard. But not high, and then she came down low enough for me to give her some food and pick her up and put her in the coop. This time I left the door open.

In the morning, the eighth day of September, I checked the coop. The food I’d left remained untouched. I called. And called. No answer, no owl.

My main fear had been that Alfie, not having learned how to hunt, would wander off and starve.

Soon I noticed something even more worrying. Just outside the back steps were several screech owl body feathers. They appeared to have been forcibly pulled out. There seemed little question that something had attacked a screech owl. I’d let a perfectly tame, rather comfortable little owl face the harsh world. Whose best interests was I really concerned about? Hers? Or my imagined ideal outcome? I’d opened the door. She’d chosen to come out. It had been a gamble.

Alfie with her adult plumage.

Alfie with her adult plumage. Carl Safina

Possible attackers included: a wild owl we’d heard or, worse and more decisively, a Cooper’s hawk. The latter seemed more likely. This would mean that she’d come back this morning and gotten killed.

My worries about her over the last year had focused on the chances that she’d starve if suddenly released. I had not gotten as far as the possibility that a day-flying predator would snatch our little night-flying friend one fine morning. Yet that’s what the evidence most suggested.

Patricia looked on in silence.

Out loud, I cursed.

A few days after Alfie’s possibly fatal disappearance, I had to temporarily disappear. I’d been asked to participate in a conference titled “The Future of the Planet” in Lisbon, Portugal. As I flew across the Atlantic, Alfie was much on my mind. A possible reason for the feathers on the ground had not previously occurred to me: blue jays might have attacked her and pulled several feathers without otherwise injuring her.

Alfie was making her own choices. And she chose to keep the connection, to stake out her territory with our home at its heart.

But the week passed with no sign of Alfie. Food that Patricia was leaving out remained untouched.

In Lisbon the night before I was scheduled to head home, a ding from my cell phone woke me in my hotel. A text from Patricia read, “Guess who’s back!”

Patricia was sitting outside with a friend at around 11 p.m. when Alfie showed up. Alfie followed Patricia to the screened coop. Alfie went in. Patricia gave her food.

Alfie’s week-long disappearance had shaken us. But she hadn’t starved. So we left the door open, even as autumn approached.

Alfie was making her own choices. And she chose to keep the connection, to stake out her territory with our home at its heart. We saw her nightly. She remained tame, often approached close enough for a little head scratching, and took treats. And soon the scolding jays and robins clued us to her favorite day-snoozing place in the protection of thick cascades of ivy on the 15-foot-high stump of a huge old maple outside our kitchen window. She became a constant and calming presence in our backyard. But we could not have predicted how much that bit of constancy that she brought would come to matter.

Alfie in a dogwood by the author's home.

Alfie in a dogwood by the author's home. Carl Safina

The holidays came and went. We had not thought much about it when we saw a New York Times story on New Year’s Eve that noted that Chinese authorities had treated “dozens of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause.” We saw friends, worked, read books, made our morning coffee, and took good care of our furred and feathered. The blessed usual.

That peculiar Chinese pneumonia reported by the Times acquired a name: corona virus disease of 2019: Co-Vi-D-19. In the first months of 2020, Covid-19 found many countries. Too soon, people were getting sick where we lived.

And with incredible rapidity, the life we all knew — of visiting, going out, going into classrooms, going to work, of even funerals and burials, our known ways of being in the world — went away into the indefinite future. Bit by bit, our planned activities and travels got wiped clean, until the rest of our calendar year became a whited-out blank. Before the first week of March was over, the known world felt suspended in space and time. Life imploded.

How very strange all of that seemed against the quiet contrast of Alfie’s comfort in her own nature, her being so at home in the world.

Alfie was reminding us that in an otherwise awful, often appalling year, the magic of living things persisted.

Alfie’s consistent magic could not have been better timed. In this anguished, disorienting time, I did not expect that a sliver of a silver lining would slowly emerge. Alfie was reminding us that in an otherwise awful, often appalling year, the magic of living things persisted. She was delivering an opportunity to pay attention to a larger circle of life that we all shared. Alfie was calling our notice to a calmer world existing parallel to the storm of human events, to another reality.

In midmorning at the end of the first week of March, Patricia peered up into the deep shade of the cascading umbrella of ivy festooning the old maple stump where Alfie roosted. Looking down at her with ear tufts straight up, eyes squinted nearly closed, and body stretched cryptically, was a screech owl.

“That’s not Alfie,” she thought. Patricia circled the tree and saw another owl, fluffed and relaxed as usual. Alfie. Patricia called to me. “Alfie has a buddy!”

That evening, Alfie did not return our calls. No owls gazed back from the tangle of ivy. Patricia noticed Alfie sitting in full moonlight in the dogwood that grows through our deck, the same tree she’d shown up in after her disappearance during her first week of liberty.

Alfie (right) with her mate, Plus-One.

Alfie (right) with her mate, Plus-One. Carl Safina

But this night, Alfie showed no interest in food. She was in owl love.

Ignoring the burdens and disruptions humans were suffering due to Covid shutdowns, the sun and the Earth honored their understanding that spring would repeat as usual. Sap defied gravity, and buds swelled. Their news reached the endocrine systems of animals, whose messengers sent a memo to all. Subject heading: Spring is in the air.

Going nowhere myself, I watched a living world very much on the move. As dawn came earlier, arriving red-winged blackbirds reclaimed and proclaimed their marshes. Flocks of grackles and robins followed the north-trending daylight. The urge spread, until the planet’s subscription to sunlight and the circulation of time delivered to every living thing and to our very doorstep a sense of a year renewed.

Alfie and her buddy, named Plus-One, began a habit of either roosting together all day or meeting right at dusk. For a few weeks the routine was: they’d get together, he’d go and catch something — a moth, say — and feed it to her. They’d further solidify their bond by the act of mating. He’d go off and hunt while she lingered near the nest box that I’d put on the outer wall of my studio.

Alfie with her young.

Alfie with her young. Carl Safina

Eventually I realized that Alfie was in the box all day; she was caring for eggs. Early in the second half of May, she had three little owlets to feed.

During the second week of June, owlets of slightly differing sizes peeked out from time to time during daylight, bobbing and waving their heads as they acquired their fix on an entirely new realm.

Alfie often uttered the commonly described whinny and tremolo calls at various volumes when advertising her presence, calling during courtship and when maintaining contact. I’d more recently come to know a long series of low staccato notes, a sort of ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh … used during very close contact, usually at the nest. It seemed her call of bonded intimacy and explicit deep trust. When directed at us from inside the nest box, it seemed to underscore what an odd little life she had, split between her intimate confidence in us and her innate competence as a female owl who had acquired a mate, incubated her eggs, and could raise a family.

Our worlds overlapped; she, as I liked to say, with a wing in mine, I, with a foot in hers. Our bond was mutually enriching. Our capacities to relate intertwined; we were entangled in each other in the most constructive way. Perhaps she understood what this meant more simply — and more fully — than did I.