A swift, graceful breach of air is the only indicator of Mumble’s approach. She arrives without a sound, locked on her target. Martin Windrow takes a sip of coffee, ignoring her as she stares from atop her perch. A quick clack of razor-sharp talons against the cupboard and Mumble is in position. Windrow looks away from the breakfast he’s plating on the counter and stares curiously up at his little Tawny Owl. A sharp beak protrudes from her fluffed, handsome face. At less than two feet tall, Mumble is a paradoxical combination of lethal and cuddly. Windrow smiles and pats his shoulder. With a short hop, she lands comfortably upon it.
“It took me by surprise, this first occasion,” Windrow reminisces. “She was doing her thing, perched upon a door or whatever she was wont to do, and I was doing my thing, and suddenly she was on my shoulder. I knew she wanted my attention when she’d start preening my beard, but then, she would shove her head against my nose and it was quite clear she didn’t just want my affection, she was demanding it!” He can’t help but laugh at the memory. “That was a wonderful surprise to me.”
For 16 years, this is how Windrow’s morning began. The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is at once a chronicle of Mumble’s daily charm and a tale whose scope goes far beyond cute owl stories. Windrow’s curiosity is boundless, and his proficiency for research equally so. “I really wanted to educate people on owls in the same way my interests were piqued when reading about them,” he says. “But it wasn’t my aim to change the way people think about them. That would be a huge ask. In Britain, in recent decades owl protection has improved, but the massacres by gamekeepers on shooting estates lasted from the 1850s to 1950s. Inevitably, it still takes some toll on them.”
Windrow admits he is no ornithologist—merely an admirer of owls—but his passion to educate undoubtedly originates from Mumble’s untimely death at the hands of an intruder. Misrepresentation of owls through film and folklore has done much damage to their reputation, and Windrow often references the fear unfairly linked to owls. “It’s quite simple,” he says of the correlation, “It’s night. For as long as humans have been around, nighttime is when we’ve been most vulnerable; that’s when we’re the most scared. If you’ve got owls zooming around at night, then it’s not hard to put the two ideas together. When I hear a Tawny owl hoot, on the other hand, I get all sentimental.”
Windrow frequently diverges from his journal entries and personal recounts to ruminate upon various owl species, those hard-to-break owl mythologies and how human actions continue to affect them throughout the United Kingdom. But he always circles back to how they help him better understand the story’s curious and complex star: Mumble. “A lot of my friends thought I was insane keeping a pet owl,” he admits, fondly recounting her attacks on shoelaces or dive-bombing the head of an unsuspecting passerby. “On the other hand, as soon as they met her they got the point. She put on such a show.” More than 20 years since Mumble’s passing, the way Windrow writes and speaks of her make it clear he still feels the sting of her loss.
Regardless, he has resisted any temptation to raise another owlet since Mumble’s passing. There are many reasons for this, he explains, least of which, “I didn’t want crap everywhere! Nor did I want to guard against my owlet taking the cleaning lady’s scalp off. It’s a complicated business living with an animal like that.” After so much time, Windrow admits it was difficult reading his journal entries from “the owl years” when writing the book, but it also helped ease some of the pain of her absence. “It brought back so many happy memories,” he says. “It was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Mumble gave me so much pleasure, and I wanted to share that with people.”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, Texas.