March 9th, 2005
Eyes in the Back of His Head
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist
On February 3rd, I was standing in the PAWS Wildlife Center exam room
looking down into a cardboard box. A moment earlier, I had opened the
box to find a six-inch tall bird facing away from me. The bird's
gray-brown plumage was speckled with tiny white spots, and white bars
accented his dark brown tail. His was the unmistakable color pattern of
a woodland bird that prefers to remain hidden, but it afforded him no
stealthy advantage as he stood on the bright white pillowcase that
lined the bottom of the box. On the back of the bird's head, a pair of
bold, black markings ringed with white stood out in stark contrast to
the otherwise drab pattern.
The marks bore an uncanny resemblance to a pair of eyes, and they were
clearly meant to be seen as such by predators who prefer to approach
unwary prey from behind. The bird in the box turned to face me with his
real eyes, and now I could see his white breast streaked with brown, as
well as his hooked bill, flecked with bits of pink from a recent meal.
Although his small size made him potential prey for many animals, he
himself was a predator. He was a Northern Pygmy Owl, and he was
completely unaware of the irony of his situation. This little owl that
deceives would-be predators with his fake eyespots had been brought to
PAWS due to an injury that occurred after his real eyes had deceived
When you are small, it pays to have eyes
in the back of your head.
A few hours before the pygmy owl arrived at PAWS, he had been hanging
out in Sultan, WA on the property of a kind-hearted woman named Agnes.
Agnes was not aware of the owl's presence on her property until she
heard the audible "thump" of the bird hitting her house. She went
outside to investigate and, with a little help from her dog, Agnes
found the diminutive predator lying on his back below her window. As
Agnes picked the owl up, he attempted to fly away, but his collision
with the window had taken a toll. The bird simply fluttered to the
ground, and Agnes picked him up once again. Since he was clearly in
need of assistance, Agnes brought the bird to PAWS where he was entered
into the database as case #05-0092.
After being admired by the Naturalist, pygmy owl 05-0092 received a
full physical examination. The examination revealed that the bird was
suffering from head trauma, but he had no broken bones. A slight
abnormality was discovered during the owl's eye exam, but it wasn't
clear whether or not this was related to the window collision. The owl
was given fluids to help with his shock, and he was housed in a
darkened, indoor cage to allow him time to recover from the head trauma.
A front view of pygmy owl
05-0092 shortly after he
arrived at PAWS.
Two days after being admitted, the pygmy owl was showing signs that he
was feeling better. He was far more alert than he had been at
admission, and he had regained his ability to fly. He was moved to an
outdoor flight cage to continue his recovery, and to further assess his
Pygmy owl 05-0092 flew well in the flight cage, but some concern
remained over the state of his vision. His behavior in the flight cage
was somewhat difficult to interpret. One of the pygmy owl's primary
defenses is to sit completely still. If this is done on a tree branch,
the owl's cryptic coloration makes it nearly invisible. When PAWS staff
entered the pygmy owl's flight cage, he often sat completely still, but
he did so on an exposed perch in the center of the cage.
He did not respond when approached,
but it was unclear whether this lack of response was due to a
vision/awareness deficit, or if he was just exhibiting normal behavior
in an unfamiliar setting.
PAWS Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. John
Huckabee examines the pygmy owl's eyes.
The pygmy owl's behavior in the flight cage changed over the course of
a few days. He began to take evasive flights when staff entered his
cage, and he seemed far more alert and wary. To help alleviate any
lingering concerns about the bird's vision, veterinary ophthalmologist
Dr. Tom Sullivan graciously volunteered to examine the pygmy owl. Dr.
Sullivan noted a small cyst on the iris in the owl's left eye, but his
opinion was that there were no abnormalities that should interfere with
the bird's vision. The pygmy owl further supported Dr. Sullivan's
opinion by successfully passing a live prey test. With the staff having
no remaining doubts about his abilities, it was time for the owl to go
On February 18th, pygmy owl 05-0092 was once again face to face with
Agnes. In a release box that Agnes had just opened, the owl was
standing on a perch and looking up at her as she smiled. PAWS staff
member Cindy Kirkendall, photographer Paul Bannick, and I stood close
by. Uncertain what to make of the situation the owl fell back on his
tried-and-true defense behavior of simply sitting still. Agnes scooted
away from the box, and out of the owl's line of sight. Several minutes
I instructed Agnes to slowly approach the box and tilt it so the owl
would see the trees nearby. As the box tipped, the owl responded
immediately and flew about 20 feet to a cedar branch. Now out of reach
of the four humans who were watching him, the pygmy owl relaxed and
began to assess his surroundings.
Northern Pygmy Owl
05-0092 sits on a cedar
branch at his release.
Photo by Paul Bannick
As the pygmy owl looked around, it really was difficult at times to
tell which direction he was facing-a testament to the effectiveness of
the "eyespot" markings on his head. The owl flew to a higher branch on
the opposite side of the tree, much to the annoyance of a Winter Wren
hiding in a patch of Oregon grape below him. The wren began chattering
irritably, but he did not dare poke his head out of the dense foliage
in which he was hiding. The wren was wise to stay hidden, as the
predator that was in the branches above him has been known to kill and
eat birds as large as Steller's Jays. A wren caught out in the open
would not provide him with much of a challenge. The owl occasionally
glanced down in the wren's direction, but did not seem interested in
trying to make a meal of the tiny chatterer. Perhaps realizing that the
owl was not currently seeking a meal, the wren's alarm calls eventually
ceased. The three other spectators and I observed and photographed the
owl for several more minutes, fully appreciating the rare gift of being
in the presence of this amazing bird. We then repaid the pygmy owl by
giving him the gift of our absence as he reclaimed his life.
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Wild animals released between February 23rd and March 8th, 2005:
All rights reserved. ©2005 Progressive Animal Welfare Society
1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
3 Rock Pigeons
1 Red-breasted Sapsucker
28 wild animals have been released since the beginning of 2005.