The owl who liked sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow – review

1 August 2014 by GrrlScientist, posted in Birds, Book review

SUMMARY: a gentle and moving memoir by a man who shared his seventh-floor London flat with an unlikely companion; a tawny owl.

Unless you are Harry Potter, you probably don't live with an owl in your house. But writer Martin Windrow lived with his "one true owl" long before Harry met Hedwig, as we discover in the charming book, The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar [Bantam Press, 2014; Amazon UK; Amazon US/kindle US]. Written by a British historian and military expert employed at a London publishing house, this poignant memoir tells the story of a man who fell under the spell of an extraordinary owl – thanks in part to the influence of his older brother, a falconer.

Windrow's companion owl adventures began in 1977 when he adopted a little owl, Athene noctua, whom he named Wellington. Unfortunately, this experiment turned out to be a disaster because Wellington had not been handfed as a youngster, so the thrush-sized owl's relationship with the author never progressed beyond fear and hostility. After four months of concerted effort, the author eventually gave up trying to tame the hysterical owl.

Despite this failed experiment and his personal misgivings, Windrow was charmed by his sister-in-law's pet tawny owl, "Wol", a bird that he had plenty of time to observe during family holidays and while convalescing at his brother's house after a parachuting accident. This majestic owl often perched motionless atop shadowy kitchen and dining room cupboards for hours on end, presiding over noisy children, cooking and family meals like a feathery buddha.

Inspired by Wol, it wasn't long before the author sought to repeat his companion owl experiment. But this time, he adopted a captive-bred tawny owl, Strix aluco, that had been handfed from day it popped out of its egg.

Originally named "Marmite Sandwich" by the bird breeder's 12-year-old son who raised the owlet, Windrow immediately realised this gentle pigeon-sized bird was completely different to the skittish Wellington:

Perched on the back of a sunlit chair was something about 9 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 leaned closer. It blinked its furry grey eyelids, then jumped very deliberately up on to my right shoulder. It felt like a big, warm dandelion head against my cheek, and it smelt like a milky new kitten. 'Kweep', it repeated, very softly.

[...]

Love at first sight – when it hits you late, it hits hard. It hit me at thirty-four, and I was a slave to it for the next fifteen years. [p. 51]

A few days after sneaking his pet into his seventh-floor flat in a south London tower block, Windrow named his companion "Mumble" for her habit of "quiet conversation with herself, me and the world at large".

In this 316-page book, the author details Mumble's life as she matured from a fluffy owlet into a lovely juvenile and then into adulthood. Throughout their 15 years together, Windrow filled notebooks with fascinating observations of Mumble's behaviours, such as her improving flight and hunting skills, her eating and bathing habits, and even that she enjoyed drinking from a dripping kitchen tap. We also learn that the fledgling Mumble was a delight to Windrow's friends, who later had to don protective vintage helmets before Mumble's growing possessiveness ruled out visitors altogether.

Through Windrow's reminiscences and journal quotes, we learn of Mumble's passions – attacking shoelaces and spider plants, riding the carriage of his typewriter – and we learn of her enemies – pigeons outside the window, the telephone and, after she'd matured, his friends. He also writes of her fondness for him, which she demonstrates in her own birdy fashion: "She suddenly appeared on my shoulder with a disgusting tangle of partly eaten chick in her beak. She repeatedly leaned around my face, unquestionably trying to reach my mouth and feed me. When I avoided these deeply touching but unwelcome attempts, she tried a couple of times to stuff the slimy gobbet into my ear instead."

This quirky and often amusing narrative includes captivating colour and black-and-white photographs in a special inset and numerous drawings throughout by artist Christa Hook (one of my many favourites is the drawing on pp. 74-75). In several chapters, Windrow contemplates the long history, and rich folklore and mythology of human relationships with these often misunderstood birds. He also shares a lot of ornithological information about the anatomy and physiology, natural history and evolution of owls. The only misleading statement is the author's assertion that "birds evolved from small reptiles during the age of dinosaurs". This outdated notion is no longer accepted. Instead, new and more complete data reveal that birds actually are dinosaurs – living dinosaurs.

The author explains that although birds of prey are fully protected by law, it is not illegal in the UK to own an owl or other raptor, provided all the proper paperwork has been filed. But don't run out to get your own owl since birds of prey generally do not make good house companions because their dietary requirements, their smelly poops, the consistent quality of care and the space they need don't often mesh with most people's busy, cramped lives.

Mumble's untimely death affected the author deeply: it took 20 years (and lots of prodding) before he dug out his notebooks and wrote this unusual book. Windrow is a military historian who has written and published a number of celebrated books, but he writes about his beloved companion with quiet grace, and this lively book is a most satisfying read. I was particularly moved by the last paragraph, which is restrained yet intensely powerful within the context of this story.

Although the author's dry wit and "British reserve" make him seem somewhat curmudgeonly at times, this book is an eloquent yet unsentimental testimonial about a man devoted to his "one true owl", and the profound impact that relationship with this bird had on his life.

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Martin Windrow is a British historian, author and longtime military editor at Osprey Publishing. He is an Associate of the Royal Historical Society and of the French Foreign Legion Association of Great Britain. He has published numerous books, articles and monographs on organizational or physical details of military history and the history of the post-war French Foreign Legion. He lives in East Sussex.

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Disclaimer: GrrlScientist has no known connection to the book's author. Outside of receiving a free review copy of this book, no compensation was received by GrrlScientist for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the publisher.

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, written by GrrlScientist and published on The Guardian.

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When she's not visiting pubs with her drinking pal, Arwen the Grey parrot, Grrlscientist can be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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