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Book Review of Wesley the Owl

Although I want to go birding every day of my life, there are a few times when I would rather stay indoors than traipse around a park or natural area. Take yesterday, for example. It was about 20 degrees (F) in New Jersey, but the wind-chill factor was 3(F). And the wind blew, not in little gusts here and there, but constantly. All day. Very, very hard. I actually saw some ducks when I went to walk the dog, but didn’t stop to identify them with my binoculars because it would mean I would have to stand still for two seconds. It’s hard to bird when you’re screaming and running for the heated car.

So, if it’s too cold to bird, the next best thing to do is read about birds. There are a number of bird-related books available at the giant bookstore chain in my area, and I will review one occasionally in my column, when it is slow in the bird world.

The book I’m reviewing in this column is called “Wesley the Owl”, written by Stacey O’Brien. A link will be provided under “Book Reviews” if you would like to order it. This book was not provided to me free for review.

“Wesley the Owl” is not a book about birding per se, but more of a “Marley and Me” inspired pet memoir. Stacey was a wildlife biologist at Cal tech when her boss asked her if she would like to raise an orphaned, injured barn owl. Of course she said “yes,” and lots of heartwarming, funny stories ensued.

Most of the anecdotes were very interesting. An owl is not like a dog or cat, I learned. Owl parents don’t correct their owlets’ behavior the way a dog will correct its pups’ behavior (by growling and snapping at it). If you raise your voice to an owl that’s behaving badly, he will assume you are trying to kill him. They don’t understand reprimands. As smart as owls are, they are more or less untrainable to do tricks or any useful task.

Owls are also solitary animals. They hunt alone and have little contact with anyone else (owl or otherwise) besides their mate. Wesley adored Stacey, who he considered his wife, but had little use for anyone else and was often hostile. One time he tried to attack her boyfriend just because the man wanted to see Wesley play.

Owls have to eat between four and seven mice a day. If you try to give them meat from the grocery store, they will suffer malnutrition. It has to be a full, entire, mouse. Stacey had to kill the mice herself, since Wesley’s injury kept him from eating more than one live mouse a year.

Overall, an owl is a very high maintenance bird. Only trained, licensed wildlife biologists can keep owls today. Stacey adopted Wesley in the 80’s, back when there were fewer regulations. Reading this book is probably the closest most people will ever come to experiencing owl ownership, so it was fascinating in that regard. I did find a few faults with the book. Towards the beginning, it was written in almost a literary nonfiction style. There would be a short anecdote, followed by a lot of information about owls, some of which came off as rather dry. The pace picked up in the middle of the book, but as the anecdotes got more interesting, I also found myself wondering about some of them. Nothing is as ridiculous as James Frey’s root canal, but a few of the tales seem a bit “too good to be true.” And, I should warn anyone thinking of buying the book for children, it does have a bittersweet ending. Wesley will be immortalized in print, but was not actually immortal in real life, if you know what I mean.

Despite its sad ending, I enjoyed “Wesley the Owl” tremendously and strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in owls or wildlife.

Grade: A

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