The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

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JUNE 2014 Issue

The Writer and the Raptor

In the fall of 1977, a London man named Martin Windrow decided to do something rather eccentric: adopt an owl. “Why I decided,” Windrow muses, “in my thirties, to acquire a pet for the first time—and an owl, at that, given my previous lack of interest in ornithology—remains a fair question. If the reasons why were puzzling, then the how was also less than straightforward.” In his book, The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, Windrow, a writer and editor of military histories, explores both the why and how of the entire adventure. The result is a delightfully odd, and distinctly British, little volume. It reads as if P. G. Wodehouse had written White Fang, moving the setting from the wilds of Alaska to the relative civility of South London. However, despite the lightness of both tone and subject matter, Windrow maintains a scholar’s perspective and critical eye throughout the book.

Martin Windrow
The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

After an ill-fated ordeal with a Little Owl, Windrow finally got the bird that would become his companion for the next 16 years: a Tawny Owl he named Mumble. His description of their first meeting is characteristically charming and astute:

Perched on the back of a sunlit chair by the open window was something about nine inches tall and shaped rather like a plump toy penguin with a nose-job. It appeared to be wearing a one-piece knitted jumpsuit of pale grey fluff with brown stitching, complete with an attached balaclava helmet. From the face-hole of the fuzzy balaclava, two big, shiny black eyes gazed up at me trustfully. “Kweep,” it said quietly. Enchanted, I leant closer. It blinked its furry grey eyelids, then jumped very deliberately up onto my right shoulder.

His depiction is decidedly unscientific, and yet cannily perceptive. Windrow brought his pet home to his small London apartment and began the process of getting to know his unconventional new roommate.

Windrow, being a man of letters, took extensive notes on the entire experience and much of the book is taken from his diary entries from the time. “I never became even an amateur ornithologist,” he humbly explains, “but I still felt the inborn...need to understand what I was looking at.” Windrow studied every facet of Mumble’s daily life, recording her shifting moods, her many vocalizations, her feeding schedule, her molting behavior, her physiology, her grooming habits, and her reactions to visitors. Overall, in his assessment, “her attitude to life seems to be more or less that of a lazy cat.” Like a cat, much of her day was spent in a state of relaxed vigilance, often on Windrow’s bust of Germanicus Caesar—the Caesar of the title and a favorite perch:

Her job, her hobby, her passion was watching things—which is hardly surprising, given her place in the natural order. From her various preferred vantage points around the flat she kept constant surveillance over her environment, and when she detected any hint of sound or movement her evaluation of it was presumably based on the central question of any carnivore’s existence: Can I jump on it, or is it going to jump on me?

At times, the diary entries border on tedious, as any extensive journal of an animal’s daily behavior would. But rarely does Windrow’s account venture into sentimentality or effusiveness—he is interested in Mumble less as a pet and more as a biological specimen. He carefully keeps a conscientious emotional distance. Anthropomorphizing an animal’s conduct is easy to do and Windrow rigorously avoids such simplification.

Though he often repeats his assertion that he is no bird expert, in between diary entries, Windrow offers a wealth of information about owls, in Britain and in general. The subtitle of the book is Living with a Tawny Owl and he examines the paleontology, zoology, and anatomy of the species at great length. He also explores mankind’s often dark opinion of owls over time in both literature and folklore around the world. The book, though ostensibly about his life with Mumble, is a far-reaching and extensive study of owls, a potentially tiresome subject that he manages to keep compelling and comprehensible. He brings a scholarly attitude and inventive insights to his offbeat subject, keeping the book from becoming either overly saccharine or boringly vapid.

At times, Windrow’s professional writing as a military historian creeps into the text, to great effect. For instance, he defines Mumble’s flying skills in terms of combat aircraft:

[N]ot even all raptors depend upon flying to the same extent, and woodland owls like the tawny are among those that Nature has designed for relatively brief, low-altitude flights. In terms of human military aviation, we might think of them as “short-range vertical/short take-off and landing ground-attack fighters” rather than as “air-superiority interceptors” like peregrines. Mumble is a Hawker Harrier, not an F-16.

Eventually, in 1981, the pair moved out of London to a country home in Sussex, affording them both a bit more space. Windrow continued to study and enjoy Mumble’s presence until the end of her life, in 1993. His description of her untimely demise is surprisingly poignant and philosophical, especially considering the professional distance he maintains throughout much of the book. Though he explicitly does not characterize their relationship as “love,” he makes it clear that there was certainly some mutual feeling between them:

Throughout her life, she very often chose, unprompted, to seek my physical closeness, and to positively demand my touch, to which she responded with obvious pleasure [...] She routinely dozed on my shoulder, paying me the greatest compliment that an animal can—that of trust [...] Rationalize it however you like; that’s an individual relationship—and it’s the kind of bond that I have never enjoyed with any other animal, previously or since.

Though the book is brimming with information about Mumble, and about owls in general, it is at its heart the story of a relationship between man and beast, from shy introduction to bittersweet parting. Windrow’s account of his time with his owl is wryly funny, abundantly informative, and ultimately, peculiarly touching.


Casey Murphy

Casey Murphy is a freelance writer in New York City. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

All Issues