Monday, June 4, 2012

Wesley the Owl, by Stacey O'Brien

On Valentine's Day 1985, biologist Stacey O'Brien first met a four-day-old baby barn owl -- a fateful encounter that would turn into an astonishing 19-year saga. With nerve damage in one wing, the owlet's ability to fly was forever compromised, and he had no hope of surviving on his own in the wild. O'Brien, a young assistant in the owl laboratory at Caltech, was immediately smitten, promising to care for the helpless owlet and give him a permanent home. Wesley the Owl is the funny, poignant story of their dramatic two decades together.

With both a tender heart and a scientist's eye, O'Brien studied Wesley's strange habits intensively and first-hand -- and provided a mice-only diet that required her to buy the rodents in bulk (28,000 over the owl's lifetime). As Wesley grew, she snapped photos of him at every stage like any proud parent, recording his life from a helpless ball of fuzz to a playful, clumsy adolescent to a gorgeous, gold-and-white, macho adult owl with a heart-shaped face and an outsize personality that belied his 18-inch stature. Stacey and Wesley's bond deepened as she discovered Wesley's individual personality, subtle emotions, and playful nature that could also turn fiercely loyal and protective -- though she could have done without Wesley's driving away her would-be human suitors!

O'Brien also brings us inside the prestigious research community, a kind of scientific Hogwarts where resident owls sometimes flew freely from office to office and eccentric, brilliant scientists were extraordinarily committed to studying and helping animals; all of them were changed by the animal they loved. As O'Brien gets close to Wesley, she makes important discoveries about owl behavior, intelligence, and communication, coining the term "The Way of the Owl" to describe his inclinations: he did not tolerate lies, held her to her promises, and provided unconditional love, though he was not beyond an occasional sulk. When O'Brien develops her own life-threatening illness, the biologist who saved the life of a helpless baby bird is herself rescued from death by the insistent love and courage of this wild animal.


  1. I enjoyed the information on owls, both wild and captive, along with the discussion on animal intelligence and emotions in general. The depiction of the academic environment and human characters also seemed right on and brought back memories of college and med school. Overall I enjoyed the book and will be more observant for owls which we occasionally hear and rarely see when walking. The author seemed too enamored with herself for my taste, but that may be the nature of auto-biography.

  2. This book selection was great for variety. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I found the info on owls very complete and made me more interested in these animals than before. I couldn't help but chuckle though at how "California" the whole thing seemed. People out there just are a little different and the author seemed to fit this perfectly. I remember Coryn's first babysitter bought an emu- she wanted to write children's books with him as a main character. I'm sure all biologists are a little out of the mainstream, but the fact that she chose this owl over every normal human relationship was funny and very typical southern California to me. Wesley was very cute and funny. I enjoyed all the anecdotes of him growing up. Not a book I would have chosen on my own, which is what makes book clubs so great!

  3. I rarely choose to read non-fiction, so was glad to have a reason to broaden what I spend my train journeys doing. The book is titled simply "Wesley" in the UK, and the author's note at the beginning seemed to be very UK-centric (eg, mentioning DEFRA and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), but otherwise it was a very American story -- perhaps specifically Southern Californian according to Nicole.
    I must admit I did not know that much about owls, much less the difference between barn owls and other owls. What I did know was from children's books and movies, where owls are always male, wise, and alone. I knew they ate rodents, but I did not know that barn owls almost nothing but mice - whole - nor did I know about mice pellets.
    While all the facts were very interesting, I enjoyed the descriptions of his emotions and reactions more than anything else, mostly his odd love of water.
    It did seem that she chose Wesley over every other relationship, and it was odd that she did not appear to realize this, or was specifically avoiding such discussions.
    All in all a very enjoyable read. Thanks, Pam.

    As a side note, I pulled out the two really old Helen Reddy albums I have from Dad's collection to see if anyone with O'Brien was mentioned, but they did not list the musicians on the album covers.

  4. I would not have picked this book myself, but it was interesting. My experience with owls is limited strictly to dissecting owl pellets in fourth grade, or at least I think it was that year. I really enjoyed that, but didn't know that wasn't the only way an owl eliminated food. It was educational and nice to read about a different animal, but it kind of got repetitive after awhile. Along the lines of what Jason was saying, I could see similarities between the author's limitations on pursuing human relationships while focusing or choosing the relationship with Wesley and one of my friends and her relationship with her dog.