A Home for Alfie

A little owl, a big world, a hard-won home

THE HOMING INSTINCT is widely shared among animals. The territory. The nest site. The song, a proclamation of home. The squabbles and the chases, a demonstration of having it, an insistence on holding it.

Birds too can become homeless. For the moment, let’s put aside the enormity of the continental loss of 3 billion birds since I was in high school, a quarter of North America’s feathered nations lost because we took their homes for sprawl and spreading farms, lost to pesticides and starvation, their grounds of procreation broken, sprayed, paved for more chickens to slaughter and more cows and pigs to torment and more corn and beans to support the still expanding human numbers that have, during my lifetime, tripled. There is no room on this page for the enormity of how so much more is so much less.

Let’s focus instead on one small tragedy averted. Her name is Alfie. An eastern screech owl. One of our relations. My little friend. There is much to report.

As I write this, Alfie has just turned five years old and is out in her nest box brooding her new chicks. This brood has been fathered by her new mate, a secretive, seldom seen male named Jack. (We named them not to be cute but because they are individuals, with differing histories and personalities that prompt specific reference when my wife, Patricia, and I talk about them, as I’m doing here with you now.)

Alfie’s clutch of five is her largest yet. As a two-year-old with her doting and devoted first mate, Plus-One, Alfie hatched and fledged three owlets, and three more the following spring. It seemed magically timed that these owls’ establishment of their home in our backyard coincided with the years in which COVID kept us, too, home. The owls sprinkled fairy dust on a couple of otherwise dreadful years. Rather than feeling stuck, we had been given an opportunity to be present for something wonderful.

But last year Plus-One disappeared. Alfie’s internal chemistry responded as usual to the lengthening days. Her fatherless clutch of four was infertile, but she faithfully incubated them well past their due date. It felt to me that Alfie was keeping her promise in a world that had broken its. I knew I was projecting. But there she was, mateless, holding up her end of the covenant. I was almost relieved when she finally abandoned the effort. Almost. A little part of me seemed to die in those eggshells last spring. But Alfie was playing a long game, and she remained in our yard all winter and spring, roosting by day in a big cascade of ivy on the twelve-foot-high stump of a huge old erstwhile maple.

When the world started coming back to life at the end of last winter, I was more than delighted to hear a lower-pitched trill in our yard one night and to glimpse an owl who was wary of my gaze. Whereas Alfie and Plus-One used to meet at dusk each evening and share food he brought, and mate with gusto, Jack seemed tentative, less than committed, intermittently present, and, frankly, inept. I was not sure that the bond had been consummated. I did not even know whether this year’s clutch was fertile until, the night before last, when they started hatching.

Alfie emerges from her nest each evening around sundown to get a drink and sometimes a bath and to grab a bite of food. She knows me well and usually calls to me, and in that way we say hello to each other. When she launched, I put up a ladder, climbed, stuck my phone into the nest opening, and got several images of five eggs—two hatched, two hatching.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, elated as I am by the new life. Five years ago, someone found on their lawn a bedraggled little owlet, weeks away from fledging, with blowfly eggs in its down, and generally near death. In a matter of hours, those eggs would have hatched and the flesh-eating maggots would have been the horrific end of that story. But this time humans would intervene, disrupting death for survival and delivering the tiny owlet to our house, which has occasionally been a temporary shelter for other wild orphans.

Screech owls normally nest in the depths of tree holes, where chicks cannot fall out. Their eggs are spherical, because there’s no risk of rolling away, and they’re white with no camouflage, because of how well the shadows hide them. For an owlet weeks shy of fledging to end up on someone’s lawn with no nest in sight was odd. A raiding crow might have dragged the nestling out, lost its grip, and not bothered to retrieve it. (Crows have left the remains of songbird chicks in our birdbath enough times for us to realize that, for them, springtime is a season of abundance.)

We had no intention of keeping her, only of caring for our little rescue—whom we named Alfie—and letting her fledge when her time was right. There would be no cage. She was free to widen her ambit as she grew.

But a problem arose. Her head and body and tail feathers grew in perfectly. The long “primary” flight-powering feathers of her wingtips grew in perfectly. But the secondary and tertial feathers of her wings, the ones that provide the lift of flight, did not come. Two-thirds of her wings remained bare. She could only hop and flap. So the freedom she felt ready for became impossible. Instead, she needed protection.

I turned the outside portion of our chicken coop into a comfortable suite for her. The chickens roam freely all day and don’t use it, anyway. Counting her natal nest, this was her second home or her third. And each was a matter of life or death. I put up various perches, and a little shelter box for her to snooze away the days. Alfie settled in immediately, showing no signs that she felt confined. I was the one who felt her confinement. I wanted her to be the owl she was born to be, using all her senses and capabilities, having a shot at the future. I did not want a bird in a cage. But for now, the alternative to confinement was not freedom, but death.

After she molted, all her wing feathers came in beautifully. I began letting her out a bit, a soft release. By then, she was a year old. At that point my main fear was that she would bolt now that she could fly well. And if she bolted, that she’d starve. Young screech owls have parents who back them up and continue feeding them for weeks after they leave the nest, as they acquire flight skills and a bit of hunting proficiency. At this point, simply opening the door would be tantamount to abandonment. So I let her come out for short spells and let her learn to catch a fake mouse on a string, with food attached. Letting her out was a risk, of course. But freedom always is. As is life.

And she did leave. Quite suddenly. Days and nights passed, and I berated and second-guessed myself. Had we really done what was best? Had there been a better way?

Alfie provided her own answer. A week after disappearing, she returned. We, our house, our backyard, were her home. She began roosting in the ivy growing on a big old maple.

Soon there was another owl, a wild one. We did not know if he’d be friend or foe to free-flying Alfie. But Alfie answered that, too, seeking his company nightly. He reciprocated with gifts of food and peaceable compatibility.

When I saw her checking tree holes, I put up a nest box specially designed for screech owls. She and Plus-One began centering their activities—and our anticipations—there. Another new home for her. Not a big move in terms of linear distance. But this was the first home that she herself had selected.

Alfie’s tameness allowed the closest proximity, letting us see subtle phases of her developing courtship, going from tentative trust to inseparable bond, from the excitement of owl romance to the business of providing food for three growing youngsters.

And so that spring, as the world went into lockdown, we had this blessing to ease our distress. We had these owls whose sanity saved ours. They made it a wondrous pleasure to be stuck at home.

One night this spring, I went to “candle” Alfie and Jack’s eggs to see if they were fertile. To occupy her a bit and give me some time at the nest, I put food out on the banister by the back steps, her usual spot to grab evening breakfast takeout and fly it into the nearby cedars. As soon as she left the nest box at 8:24 p.m., I put up a ladder and climbed. Stuck my phone in the opening of the box. Took a photo: still five eggs. I reached in and pulled out two of the eggs and prepared to backlight them with my flashlight to see if anything was going on inside.

But that was preempted by the remarkable sound of one of the eggs speaking to me! I was sure I heard it. When it stopped, I made a squeaky noise, and the egg spoke again. Many bird parents begin conversing with chicks as soon as the egg is holed, and my thumb detected the merest chipping of the shell. Enough, apparently, to send breath to new lungs. Not yet into the world, yet already adding their newest voice to the age-old planetary conversation, to the symphony of life.

In days, four had hatched inside their human-created home. Stashed in the nest box were the carcasses of three wild white-footed mice, testament that the still elusive Jack was more committed and more competent a provider than he’d revealed to me. Eventually all four owlets successfully fledged.

Birds establishing home is entirely routine, of course. But the routine can be absolutely miraculous.

This piece was produced with the generous support of the Summerlee Foundation.

Ecologist and author Carl Safina explores how humans are changing the living world, and what those changes mean for wild places and for human and other beings. His work connects broad scientific understanding with a moral call to action. His writing has won the MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. Safina hosted the 10-part PBS series, Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina. He holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is founder of the not-for-profit Safina Center. He lives on Long Island, New York with his wife Patricia and their dogs and feathered friends. Carl’s most recent book is Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.