Owl steals a sock, flaps with it to his high nook on the bookshelf. (You think you're an eagle soaring off with a human baby? No answer.) He is not making a nest, he simply wants the sock and when it is retaken he clings to it upside down, chittering in rage.
Placid now, he likes having his beak rubbed between thumb and forefinger, having his chin chucked, his head and neck feathers lightly tweaked. He shuts his eyes in happy calm. Unfortunately, it's most often the lower lids that slide up so that I have to infer "happy calm" from an expression of slit-eyed evil. Conversely, he nibbles gently any finger, ear or nose presented to him. I sit on the couch reading a book, shoes off, toes moving in socks. Hip-hop, bouncing across the floor, comes Owl to nibble the toe. He is not mistaking it for food. The drabbest chunk of dog food, if he is going to eat it, draws from him at least the token pounce. He greets the toe as a friend, walks straight up to it, keeps claws on the ground, extends his head with eyes shut and nibbles. What are you doing, Owl? No answer. I withdraw the foot. He follows, places a restraining claw on the toe and nibbles. Will you tell me this, Owl? Are you aware that my toe pertains to me or do you consider my foot as a separate, independent creature that happens to follow me around a good deal? No answer from Owl.
"Owl," said Will, "you have bad breath." Which unfortunately is sometimes true, depending on what he last ate. Still, it is a comment you would not normally make either to your boss or to a bird.
Owl keeps track of things, sometimes better than I do. I give him a chicken neck and before long it is gone. I forget about it. Some days later Owl brings out what looks like a finger bitten from a mummy. It would seem to be of purely archeological interest, but there he is, hooking into it, twisting, tugging. For all I know, it may date not from three days before but three months before. He keeps them where it is hard to reach. Many rodents hoard, no great wisdom is required; people hoard as well—we can call it neither vice nor virtue without knowing the circumstances.
How quiet is the flight of Owl? His "noiseless" flight, when you are watching him, is surprisingly flappy—whooshy. When occupied with other things you are surprised to find that Owl has arrived nearby, maybe some time ago. For owls that little surprise has made all the difference.
Morning. I open a kitchen cabinet: Owl. Has he been sitting in perfect darkness for 10 hours, motionless, his face an inch away from the door? He is not upset.
From the window, Owl gazes skyward. His feather horns go up, he stretches. "Ooh," he says. "Ooh." Either a buzzard or one of the broad-winged hawks, very high, is turning. Owl is much impressed, but does not like what he sees at all and says softly, "Ooh." The Saxon who first formed the word "owl" did so with skill and care and he applied it to exactly the right bird.
Owl is a clean bird. Watch him take a bath. After several minutes of scrutiny, he hops into the basin. First he takes a drink: bends over, gets some, straightens up to let it run down his throat. Next he may plunge his head, oscillating it rapidly left-right, which sends a little spray of water to either side. Then he crouches his body almost under, vibrating wings and rump so fast that scientific-looking wave and interference patterns dimple the water, which is clouding up. As if taught by both a strict mother and the advertisements, this bird pays special attention to underwing and crotch areas: he ducks one shoulder and flaps water under the wing pit, then ducks the other and finishes with a shimmy of his tail. Slipping clumsily, he hops up and out. Wet, Owl cannot fly. Not at all, not, I am sure, if his life were to depend on it. The 20 minutes or so of flightlessness seems a fearful risk to take for a bath. A soaked owl looks like nothing. I do not have the heart to describe the sight further, but perhaps it is this very unappetizingness that preserves wet owls in the wild.
I have said Owl is a clean bird. That is true. On the other hand, what tends to become dirty is his immediate environment. Two aspects of Owl's magnificent digestion: one, the clean pellets he disgorges sometime after a meal containing the proper roughage—hair, insect shells, feathers and so forth; two, an aspect which was summarized by my wife Connie, who complained, "He's dumping more than he takes in." A fallacy, of course. To my almost certain knowledge, Owl does not defecate in flight. Because of the mobility flight gives him, however, much is not accounted for. Somewhere—somewhere in this house, on top of a cornice or on a high bookshelf there lies heaped a fortune in guano.