How Mumble the baby owl stole Martin Windrow's heart
PUBLISHED: 12:23 27 May 2014
She wasn't the ideal pet to keep in a London flat, but Mumble the baby owl stole Martin Windrow's heart. Then they moved to Sussex and discovered their adventures had only just begun... Angela Wintle takes up the story
It’s difficult to type when you have a tawny owl perched on the end of your typewriter carriage. Martin Windrow, a military historian and publisher, had determined never to let Mumble into his study, but in a weak moment he let her in, curious to see what she would do.
It was his manual typewriter, with its intriguing clicking noises, that proved the main attraction. “The first time she caught sight of it she approached it silently from behind before hurling herself into the machine talons first and with wings upraised,” he says. “I’m a fairly fast typist, so when she arrived at speed in the central well of the machine, she got a couple of key taps under the tail before I could react and stop.
“Finding this intolerable – especially as she was trying to bite the paper at the time – things got a bit flappy and indignant. But we soon got the hang of it. I kept on typing, while Mumble discovered she enjoyed riding the carriage on its right-to-left journey. Every time I slammed the carriage back to the right, she’d jump up and hover for half a second before descending again for her next ride.”
Most people settle for a dog or cat as a pet, but not Martin. When he decided he wanted a companion animal, he opted for something, well, a little unorthodox. “Quite what made me choose an owl is a fair question, but the blame must partly be laid, I think, at the door of my elder brother Dick, a falconry expert,” he says.
“Watching him handle and train a succession of majestic hawks, kestrels and buzzards, I became intrigued. I’d never been anything even approaching an amateur ornithologist, but the dream of owning such a beautiful creature took hold. When my brother told me that a friend of his was a licensed breeder of birds of prey, what could I do? I lived in a high-rise flat in South London so a falcon or hawk, which needs to soar high in the sky, was out of the question. But there was another option... So I placed an order for an owlet from the next clutch of eggs to hatch.”
When Martin arrived at his brother’s house to collect his new pet the following spring, it was love at first sight. Perched on the back of a chair was something shaped like a plump toy penguin. “It appeared to be wearing a one-piece knitted jumpsuit of pale grey fluff with brown stitching. Two big, shiny black eyes gazed up at me trustfully. ‘Kweep,’ it said quietly. I leaned a little closer and it jumped on to my right shoulder. It felt like a big, warm, dandelion head against my cheek, and it smelled like a milky new kitten. I was smitten and would remain so for the next 15 years.”
His plan was to give Mumble the run of the flat as much as possible, and for the times when this wasn’t practical he rigged up a large outdoor cage on his balcony. He’d been warned that you can’t house-train an owl, so he set to work covering the floor and her most obvious perches. “It was extremely messy and I had to spread thick layers of newspaper and plastic sheeting everywhere. My friends thought I was mad, but they didn’t have the pleasure of having an owl go to sleep on their shoulder.”
To his relief, though, Mumble adjusted well and quickly began exploring her new home. “She was a carnivore, so her entire waking life was spent keeping a close eye on everything around her. If I left a carrier bag lying around, she was into it. She would find a gap between two books and force her way behind the bookshelf, hooting in a curious way. And she loved clambering inside the wardrobe until she reached the deepest corner.”
It would be some weeks before she learned to fly, though at four weeks she could make a single leap from the back of his armchair to the kitchen table – an impressive 12ft at least. “It was a long while, though, before her landings improved beyond the – frankly – lamentable,” he adds. “Her incompetence was most obvious when she forgot her previous experiences of ‘ice landings’ on my long marble coffee table. She would make her approach far too fast and invariably disappeared off the far side in an ungainly cartwheel of claws and feathers.”
But mostly she was docile and affectionate. When she was sitting close, Martin would stroke her head or nuzzle her fluffy front, and she would nibble his beard with her beak. “It came as a complete and delightful surprise that Mumble had social feelings. She didn’t just come to me when she wanted feeding. She actually wanted petting and initiated preening sessions.
“Some might assume it was cruel to keep her as I did. It’s certainly cruel, and also strictly illegal, to take birds of prey from the wild, but Mumble was born in captivity and hand reared – she wouldn’t have survived in the wild. On the couple of occasions when she did escape, she just sat nearby until I tempted her to come home for her supper.”
When Mumble was three years old, Martin decided they’d had enough of city life, so he sold his flat and bought a cottage on the edge of a village near Lewes in East Sussex. There, he constructed a huge outdoor aviary where Mumble could catch her own prey and forage in the grass that grew inside it. In time, she became something of a local celebrity, and a great favourite with the village schoolchildren. “I would spot them craning over the fence to catch a glimpse of her, so on these occasions I’d get their parents to ring and arrange a time for them to meet Mumble properly, complete with my induction lecture on tawny owls.”
Only now, having created an approximation of a tawny owl’s natural environment, was he able to observe the annual rhythm of Mumble’s life, noting both a sequence of seasonal mood swings and the progress of the biggest physical event in her annual calendar – the moulting season.
“Her mood swings became noticeable from the first year we moved here. In the winter she was pretty standoffish. And in the early spring, which coincided with the mating and nesting season, she was more than standoffish – she was volatile. But as soon as the moult started in May, she suddenly became incredibly affectionate and this lasted until the end of the moult in September.”
He believes it was inevitable that their relationship would become more distant in their new surroundings. “When we’d been living in the flat, we’d spent every evening together in the same shared territory. But once we moved to Sussex, she had her own territory – and a new crowded mental life – outdoors. For me, the great compensation was the opportunities this gave me to watch her adjusting to these new circumstances and excitements.”
But then came the terrible morning when he went outside to say goodbye before departing for work to find her aviary door standing open. There was no padlock, but the door had a strong catch that neither the strongest wind nor any animal could open. There was no sign of Mumble.
“The door had been forced by a human, no doubt about it,” he says. “It might have been someone trying to steal her, but I had also noticed in the local newspaper that an animal rights group had publicised this as a week of action, and a horrible suspicion began to form in my mind.”
He knew there was no point in searching for Mumble during the day – if she was free, she would be tucked into the thickest cover she could find, asleep. So he reluctantly took himself off to the magazine where he worked, returning home early because he couldn’t concentrate. “When I got home I made a thorough search of her enclosure. And so it was that I found her body, face-down, wings and tail outspread, almost hidden in the middle of a clump of daffodils. There wasn’t a mark on her.
“I’ll never know what happened, though she would have attacked anyone who invaded her space on sight. When I found her, she was lying undisturbed in the attitude of flight and all I can guess is that she had an instant heart attack in mid-wing beat and went beak down into the daffodils.”
With stinging eyes and a lump in his throat, he picked her up and carried her indoors. “Before that day I don’t believe I’d wept aloud for 20 years, nor have I since.”
He consoles himself with the thought that Mumble enriched his life in a way he couldn’t have imagined possible. “She was a one-man owl. She was tame and affectionate towards me, but tried to attack anybody else who approached her territory. It convinced me that all living creatures have a connection. We are all part of one process. And it is good for us to have a relationship with an animal. Mumble still appears in my dreams. And, whenever she does, she unfailingly brings a surge of grateful fondness into my mind.”
The Owl Who Liked Sitting On Caesar by Martin Windrow is published by Bantam Press at £12.99