Monday, May 24, 2010

Behavior MODification

Back in March I wrote about watching Molly the Barn Owl. At that time, Molly had five eggs and we were all eagerly anticipating the future owlets. Since then, four owlets have hatched and three are now hop-flying about outside the box. It has been a wonderful experience watching them grow, watching the parents tend to their needs, and getting an intimate look into their lives.


There are some things that have put me off about the whole experience. From the start, it bothered me how Carlos, the owner of the box, would come on to sell things. There were Molly mugs, Molly t-shirts, Molly mouse pads and an audience of thousands ready to eat up the merchandise offerings.

Then there was the misinformation. Because Carlos put up this box, he was seen as an expert. He was very modest at first, and simply stated that he was observing them and learning right along with the rest of the viewers. But reading the chatroom messages on the page, I had the impression that whatever Carlos said was taken as fact. I only went on chat once, trying to correct someone who said that barn owls were screech owls. This viewer even posted a Wikipedia entry to back her claim. (Note: Anyone can post on Wikipedia. Do not use it as a source.) In Wiki's defense, it correctly noted that Barn owls are called screech owls. This does not make them screech owls any more than calling a bluejay a bluebird makes it a bluebird. They are two different species.

The fervor over the owlets increased as eggs started hatching. Viewers in the chatroom started calling themselves MODs- suffering Molly Obsessed Disorder. Carlos began talking to school and homeschool groups. The more of these he did, the more he seemed to believe he knew a lot about owls. I have to say, I've lived with cats for over twenty years now and I don't believe I know a lot about cats. With anything I do, I prefer to assume there is always more I can learn. I believe this keeps me open to accepting, or at least considering, new ideas and viewpoints.

The false facts bothered my family so much, we started viewing the owl box at the merchandise page. I left this page on my tabs for a while, and it always loaded and went to the bottom of the page. This is why I didn't notice at first just how much merchandise was added to the page. I give Carlos full marks as a good businessman. True, part of the proceeds were going to local wildlife habitat projects, and as an environmentalist I appreciate that. But something still bothered me about it all. As of this writing, I no longer see any disclosure on the merchandise page about how much money will be donated to wildlife efforts. Why is that? And where is the money going?

As the owlets grew, I went back to viewing it on the chat page and noticed some controversy about the owl box set up. It had no branching system for the young owlets. Many in chat insisted that the owls did not need this and those who disagreed ended up being banned from chat. I had never heard of branching, but I am not an owl expert. So I looked it up. From the Massachusetts Audobon website:

Occasionally one comes across an apparently helpless young owl, most often in spring or early summer. When young owls leave the nest, their first exploration is usually on foot, hopping and climbing from branch to branch, and flapping their wings to strengthen them for flight later on. Falconers call this activity "branching." Due to their inexperience, the young owls sometimes end up on the ground.

After being hounded about this, Carlos finally put up a system of platforms and perches, but insisted that branching was a made-up word.

At this point, I started actively looking for a second opinion, since Carlos seemed to be acting more and more defensive and the blind faith displayed by the chatroom MODs was making me uneasy. Stacey O'Brien, the author of Wesley the Owl, a wonderful book I read last year, has her own blog. I decided to check if she was following any of the owl box discussion. I found many entries regarding the branching question. You can view her blog here.

Another controversy involved the constant flashes while the owlets hop-fly outside. He has insisted that his flash photography is not a problem, the birds are used to it, and anyway, some of the flashes are due to cars in the neighborhood passing by or parking. Again, I noticed the chatroom gang mentality. Those who were concerned were ridiculed. I read one comment on Stacey's blog that mentioned some owl box viewers insisted "they're his owls, he can do what he wants."

I saw this as an opportunity to do an experiment with the kids. On more than one night, we watched the owlets and observed when the flashes occurred. Every flash we observed during a period of one to two hours happened when an owlet was taking off or landing. The owlets do turn when they see a flash, so if they do not see it (and that is a big "if"), they definitely hear the sound of the camera.

I do appreciate that Carlos set up this camera and allowed us a view of Molly's family. I will continue watching with the children until the owlets fly off on their own, or until the site charges me to watch. But I will also encourage my children to continue to observe, to question, and to research. I think all of it, including what has gone on in chat, is a good opportunity to learn. And learning is what this experience is all about...isn't it?


Anonymous said...

Good comments! Conclusions reached from initial experiences are usually premature knowledge. As a 70 yerd young owl, I have flown, but still crash once in a while. Some of the starlings that nest in the roof of my house year after year, loose some babies. Carlos owlets are lucky to have a protective box. As I watched an owlet standing at the door once, I thought he would never get back up if he fell. I also feel that, in the wild, sanitary conditions would be significantly better if the nest was exposed to rain, mist and wind.
Let the learning begin. Good job!
Love , Dad

~*~The Family~*~ said...

Liked your post. I am always saddened, but never surprised, how snarky people can be when they have the keyboard to hide behind.

Inner Elder said...

You made this a true educational experience, Tina: wildlife facts, consumerism, research, and mass gullibility. I too had lots of doubts about that box and how much room was in it.

Love, Mom

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