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Sidney’s Story – The Great Horned Teacher

Sidney - The Great Horned Teacher

In May of ’09 I met a bird who opened a door in a certain area of my life. This door provided me the opportunity to view many things from a different perspective and helped me see life from her point of view. She shared something with me, a portion of her life and this portion has had such a great impact on me. She has shared something with me I will remember forever. Let me tell you about a Great Horned Owl named Sidney.

It begins with a man named Jeff, a wildlife enthusiast and photographer. His house sits in front of a woods in which he has the pleasure of viewing and

Sidney tucked high in the trees in her nest

photographing numerous wild animals. Well earlier this year (’09) he noticed an owl’s nest in the crook of a tree. He began watching this nest numerous times throughout the day and would watch the fuzzy head of a baby Great Horned Owl peering back at him. This fuzzy head and the occasional view of the parents captivated Jeff. He watched day and night and would listen to the calls of the Great Horned Owls in the evening.

One day Jeff woke up to head into work. He noticed the noise outside his windows. It was the wind. It was the noise of strong winds. Jeff thought of the owl in the nest and went out to check. He told me the trees tops were swaying pretty hard and he worried about the baby Great Horned Owl. The nest appeared smaller and smaller each day and the winds this particular morning were doing the stability of the nest no favors. The baby owl sat there staring back at him. He worried this nest wouldn’t make it through the day and he was right. He came home from work that evening and immediately looked for the nest. It wasn’t there. He headed for the woods and there on the ground he saw the occupant that once called that nest home. The owl made no attempt to run away. Jeff worried it was hurt. He put the owl in a box and brought it to Nature’s Nursery.

The director of Nature’s Nursery ordered x’rays and the vet found a badly broken wing. We were

Sidney found after she fell out of her nest

told this owl would never be able to fly again and if it did, it wouldn’t fly very well. First and foremost the mission at Nature’s Nursery is to return rehabilitated animal’s to the wild. In this case, that didn’t look like a possibility. Sid was now going to be an Ambassador for Nature’s Nursery to help in informing the public about the conservation of the Great Horned Owls. The director asked me if I would like to take her home and begin training her. I immediately said yes and I went home to prepare for the accommodations of a fine, young, feathered raptor in which to share my home, my backyard, and hopefully the rest of its life. I was excited in having the opportunity to train her all the while letting and encouraging her to be the owl she is.

I use positive reinforcement training with all the birds in which I work. This type of training is very strong and used in building trust between the bird and the trainer and at the birds pace and with respect to the bird. Positive reinforcement training is very evident if done correctly. The strong bonds and relationship with the trainer is clearly seen.

I contacted some of the best avian trainers in the country to make sure I was setting myself and the owl up correctly. I moved her in and the training relationship started as soon as I placed her in the back seat of my car. If my memory serves me correctly, it was within the first two days that she came out of her enclosure to me on her own free will. I wanted all of our training interactions to be at her own free will and to the best of my ability it was.

Our training was continued success from the beginning. The relationship between the two of us developed quickly. It was at this time that I had  named her Sidney and Sidney was training me right along with me training her. I love training because it is a form of communication between myself and the bird and I let the bird tell me what it does or doesn’t want to do, but if it does what I request of it, I make it well worth the bird’s effort.

Sidney on the glove

I slowly started training Sidney to stand on my glove. This is a photo of the route I chose to take. Now I just needed to get my hand

Sidney outside in the aviary

into it. Once she was on my gloved hand I was then able to take her outside to the aviary which encloses my whole back yard. As she became more comfortable with her surroundings both inside and outside of my house one thing she started doing was flapping her wings. I can only imagine how great that must have felt for her. What a beautiful sight this was to see her outdoors in the aviary. She was so beautiful. Even more so, it was so very stimulating and enriching for her. She perched on top of my parrots playstand posts and would stare at the birds flying above. She’d watch the squirrels play in the neighbors yard. I was so excited to see her so excited!

I continued to train her all hours of the day and well into the evening. My husband and I would be sitting and watching TV when all of a sudden this whirlwind of dust began floating around us. We would look at each other and laugh and turn around to look at Sidney. She’d be sitting on top of her perch

Sidney flapping her wings

flapping her wings as hard as she could while hanging on with those huge talons of hers. At times I thought she’d lift off with the perch in tow. It was amazing to watch. That beautiful wing span, those long, long legs, and the look of shear excitement on her face of her new found skill It wasn’t long before small lift-offs began to happen. She would start flapping her wings both inside the house and out in her enclosure and in the aviary and slowly her talons would let go of her perch and I saw small amounts of flight. I saw Sidney starting to do it more often and I included these small flights in our daily training. I began cueing her from perch to perch and to different objects and to my glove. I made her rewards great and whatever I saw that she didn’t like in our training, I excluded it from our next interaction.

Over the next few weeks my bond with her just soared. I couldn’t wait to wake up or come home and train Sidney. From her reactions she looked forward to it also. I began envisioning a life with a most spectacular Great Horned Owl and those visions would soon turn into a reality.

Over time and continual training, I began to see Sidney’s lift offs take her further and further. She’d fly up to the countertop, to the top of the refrigerator, to

Sidney challenges the plum!

the chair, to the perches throughout the house and the aviary. When I took her in the house I watched her flights become dead on. I started cueing her to her perch in the living room from where she was in the kitchen. BAM! She would hit her target and right on cue. I was amazed by the maneuverability I saw her developing as she would turn corners, fly over objects, and chase toys I threw for her across the ground. These flight skills developed to a point that I picked up the phone and called the director of the rehabilitation center. I told her how well Sidney was flying. This was after Sidney had been with me for a month and a half already. I told her how I was observing Sidney’s small flights and we discussed what the vet had told us.

I kept practicing on her skills. I cued her here and there and up there and down over here and turn and come to me over here. I got it all on video to make sure I could have someone verify what I was seeing. I heard that one of the toughest things for a bird to do was to make sharper flights up and down. So guess what we started practicing? I’d cue her to the top of perches in the aviary from the ground. I’d cue her to the top of perches from the ground. I’d cue her down to a perch from her favored perch in the house. BAM! She started completing these challenges effortlessly and she seemed to really enjoy it.

Video: Sidney flying up to perch on cue (a little slow in her response but that was ok)

Video: Sidney flying down to perch on cue – reinforcer was a toy I made her

I called the director back again after working with Sidney on these behaviors for a while and asked if we could enter her into the release program and I wanted to test her in our new huge flight cage. Our flight cage was just built and was built to observe flight and hunting skills in birds we think are releasable. The director felt bad because she knew how hard I had been working with Sidney. She felt even worse because she said “If Sidney isn’t releasable Lara, you’re going to have to start all over with her.” “I know” I said. “It’s worth a try.” and she agreed and oh how my heart ached at the thought of being separated from her.

There was a young, 2 year old Bald Eagle in the flight cage waiting for release. I sat and waited patiently for the eagle to be released. In the meantime I kept training Sidney further flights and sharper or more complicating areas in which to reach her rewards. I believe the wait was about a week, maybe a little more for the flight cage to become available. I tried limiting my interactions with her to just tactics she would need in the wild. It was tough and it pulled so heavy on my heart strings. I had visions of training her for the rest of her life. It was tough when I returned her to her mew every night and I wished her a good night. I imagined not having the opportunity in seeing her at will and having her flying around my back yard. Each night I returned her, it got tougher and tougher on me. I won’t tell you that I didn’t cry each night, because I did. I grew close to her and she to I.

The day came when I got an e-mail from the director saying the flight cage was ready for Sidney. I wasn’t. I wasn’t ready to see the inside of that flight cage. I sat and balled and balled and balled. I typed her back and said “We’ll be in in the morning.”

Sidney in the one wing of the flight pen

I showed up the next morning with my baseball cap on, my Starbucks coffee in my hand, my sunglasses on, and Sidney in my hand in her carrier. I walked in the back door sat my coffee down (I don’t even drink Starbucks but I started and continue and will continue for Sidney, I’ll explain this here shortly). Everyone turned and looked at me and I pretended like I didn’t notice. I sat Sidney down. I sat my coffee down. I left the hat on. I left the glasses on. I heard “Hey, how ya doing Lara?” and I know the eyes looked down but looked back up for my response. “Oh good. Very good. I think I’m going to take one of the birds for a walk today.” as I made up something to talk about to take my mind off of what was going on. “Oh good” I heard and I heard their conversations continue. I went to the fridge and pulled out food to prepare for the birds. I turned my back to them and stood at the sink pretending I was washing something off as I noticed this huge knot in my stomach! I just wanted to get Sidney to the flight cage asap and just wail!

I kept thinking of scary movies in my head to keep my mind off of the precious cargo sitting on the floor to my right. The director started talking to someone else and I pretended to gather food. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I remember I kept thinking “Pay attention to what your doing. What would I do any other day I walked in here?” I don’t know, I couldn’t think. Thought processes happened but only in spurts. I finally opened my ears to the conversation behind me and it took my mind away from hurling in the sink. I finally started laughing and turned around and joined in the conversation. The conversation wasn’t even about a bird but in my mind I started putting Sidney’s face into the equation of the conversation. The director said something and looked at me. I felt my eyes burning. They started getting hot and I felt pressure in my head. In my head I thought “Don’t you dare. You stop it right now.” I saw the director hesitate in her talking to me and the other girl there. She did a cautious double take at me and I looked down and grabbed my coffee and shoved it in my mouth. It didn’t help. My bottom lip started quivering so bad and my hand started shaking. I pushed the cup closer to my lips and tipped but it didn’t stop the quivering. I said “Geesh, I’m spilling my coffee.” as I turned quick on my heels and headed to the bathroom to pretend to wipe the coffee from my chin. I came back out and they quickly moved themselves to the other room before I came back out. I grabbed my cargo and slipped out the back door.

I walked into that flight cage for the first time ever. I never even went in to take a look at it the whole year it was being built. I walked in and it was huge. It was glorious. I sat Sidney down, opened her door and held my glove in front of her and asked her to step up. She didn’t. She was petrified. She was in a new place and she had no idea where she was. I asked for a step up again and her eyes were wide and the pupils were so dilated. I backed off. I heard a foot. I heard one more and them boom she took off running out of the carrier and into full flight. This place is huge. I opened her bag of toys and started taking all of them out.

My new office with Sidney in the background

The next day I bought a table and a chair. I told the director I wanted to sit with Sidney everyday and get her skills on video. I sat

Sidney and I playing with one of her toys

with her for 6 hours a day everyday. I sat there and worked on my presentations for upcoming bird behavior seminars. I watched her fly each day. I played with her. I ran she chased. She flew, I chased. I laughed and she continued to fly to me for her toys I made her. After a few days I stopped fooling myself and knew I had to withdraw. I stopped training her. I stopped throwing her toys for her. I stopped feeding her mice to her.

One of the programmers came over and watched me feed Sidney from my glove before I stopped. He told me something I never knew. He said feeding an owl from the glove is not an easy thing to do in comparison to other raptors. I was surprised and asked why. He said that owls tend to need more of a trusting relationship to develop with the trainer more so than other raptors. They won’t eat from you unless they truly trust you whereas hawks, falcons, kestrels, etc are very food motivated and will just work for food. He said not so with the owl. Me???? not what I needed to hear at that moment when Sidney was walking up and taking the morsel from my hand. The lip started quivering. I stopped it though and looked at her and said “Sidney, you are a superb girl you know that?”

Sidney getting ready to feed from my glove

So I stopped training her. I stopped feeding her from my glove. I would walk in everyday and set up my computer. She would stare at me. I would talk to her but I wouldn’t feed her. She’d cock her head with that owl thing they do. I would just stare back at her and tell her “It’s time to be an owl, Sid.”

Sidney and her favorite Starbucks Cup toy

The next day I came in and sat down. My computer in my bag next to me. My coffee at my feet. I looked at my chair. I looked at the table. I looked back up at Sid and said “Someone’s been sitting in my chair.” There were dusty foot prints all over my chair. There were stones on my table. The day before I left and left my empty Starbucks on the table with her toys inside just the way she likes it. The cup was on the ground. The toy wasn’t anywhere near. I laughed and said “Looks like someone was having fun last night.” I looked for her rat that I gave her the day before. I couldn’t find it. That was good. “She’s eating.” I thought. I sat down in the chair and just stared at her. I couldn’t move. I was numb. She stared back. I didn’t get up and go walking to her as I usually did. I told her I loved her. I always told her I loved her. We sat and stared at each other for about another 5 minutes. I wasn’t getting up. She needed to lose this connection, so did I. I glanced down and something caught my eye. I looked up fast and caught the last part of her feet leaving the perch about 50′ in front of me and sat and watched what felt like slow motion of her flying straight to me. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to. I just wanted to watch and have my mind take a permanent picture of what she was doing. She flew right to me and landed on the table 2 inches in front of my knees. She landed and like an old shoe I said “Good” when she landed. “Oh, yea. I’m not supposed to do that anymore.” I thought. Five hours later I left and left behind a rat for her. Each day I left I’d pull the kleenex from my pocket.

After the third day of leaving her rats I noticed something. There was something in the corner behind my chair. It was a rat. It was 2 rats. She wasn’t eating her food! She was taking her rats and putting them behind my chair. She had to be starving. I ran out of the flight cage, jumped in my jeep and probably drove about 40 mph across the field and to the main house. I ran in and grabbed a handful of food from the fridge. I jumped back in my jeep with one hand on therats behind my chair wheel and the right one hovering over the passenger’s seat with tails dangling from my hand. I flew. I thought “She’s been hungry all this time and I thought she was eating her food. You IDIOT!” I ran in and cut up her mice and walked up to her perch. She ran over and ate and ate and ate and I filled her crop so full. I sat the rest of her mice on her stump and went and sat down. I sat and starred at her. I watched her sleep for about an hour. She’s beautiful.

I fed rats and I fed mice and left them on her stump. I’d slowly back off on the amount of mice and remained consistent with the rats. Slowly I watched her starting to eat her rats. I smiled. She was growing and she was growing away from me. I started seeing her turn into an owl.

I’d sit and watch her sleep. I’d sit and watch her play. I stopped talking to her. I started walking in and she started flying away from me. I’d take my computer to my desk and just sit and watch her.

A presentation grew near that I had been preparing for for months. I left. I left her for a long time. Longer than I ever have. I was gone from her for over a week. I came back not knowing what to expect. Yes I did. I knew what she would do and she did.

I whispered her name as I took the key that unlocked her flight cage out of my pocket. I put that key in my pocket on my flight to to my presentation, from my presentation, and during my presentation because behind that key is a big part of my heart. I had my key in my pocket and Sidney on the big screen as part of my presentation. I was so happy. I had her with me in more ways than one when I stood and spoke at the podium.

Sidney in flight

Anyway, I came home and couldn’t wait to get out there. I walked to her cage and unlocked it. I whispered her name and did

my call to her that I knew she knew. I opened the door and she did exactly what I expected. She flew from me in fear. I stood there in this gargantuous flight and walked toward her. She flew in fear again. I took two more steps she flew so close to the top of my head from 100 feet away. I (photo I Sid in flight) just stood and sucked in the sight. I saw the stripes under the wings. I saw the beautiful chest. I saw the legs somewhat tucked. I saw those big furry talons that I loved so much. I saw an owl. I saw Sidney in those eyes and I knew she saw me but she starred straight ahead as she tucked lower and lower just clearing my head. She got right in front of me and I stood still and closed my eyes. I heard nothing. Owls don’t make noise when they fly. I felt my hair swoosh from behind as being sucked through a vacuum as she flew above just clearing my head. I spun around on my heals and watched her glide and maneuver those wings into a well practiced landing. It was the most awesome sight. I cherish the feeling of hearing nothing but feeling absolutely everything.

I began releasing live prey on a consistent basis. I watched her first hunt. She was hungry, she deserved it. I saw an owl. I took in more prey. I saw more

Sidney staring at freedom

of an owl. Each day I walked in, I she grew further and further from me. I sat and watched her stare up at the top where she could see the birds fly by and hear and see the wind blowing through the tree tops. It was almost as if they were calling for her. I looked at her and I saw an owl. She’s a hunting pro. She’s a beautiful hunter. She’s majestic. She’s Sidney and tomorrow night she will be free.

Update: The director, staff, and myself arranged for Sidney’s release a few months ago after watching the numerous videos I had taken of her flight and hunting skills. She was banded the next morning. I picked her up that evening and drove her 50 miles away back to the woods in which she was found. The most fantastic staff at the rehabilitation center arranged for me to do my first release with the most precious owl. I had visions in my mind of Sidney and I spending the next 15-20 years traveling, training, and educating on conservation of the most lovely Great Horned Owls. I am sad to see that vision turn into a dream. I’m so excited for her change in plans.

The evening of her release I received so many e-mails and even a few text messages of photos of their Starbucks coffee raised to the twilighted sky in honor of Sidney, her memories, her education, and her future. I sit here thinking back about this as I sit in my dining room near her favorite perch. Each day I still carry her key in my left pants pocket. To me it is a constant reminder of not only her, but the things she taught me to appreciate, and to keep it all real. Training these birds is not a job, it is a true honor to be allowed so close to their lives and I now have so much more appreciation for the evening skies.

I have since been in touch with Jeff numerous times. He tells me he has seen a large bird flying near the woods in the early evenings and he hears the hoots of a Great Horned Owl. She’s showed me her world and I thank her. Thank you to those who have followed her story. She is simply awesome. She’s an owl.

Added note: Having possession of an owl or any other bird of prey requires a permit or license and is otherwise against the law. Living with or taking care of a bird of prey requires a lot of dedicated time and commitment. It is by no means easy and is often restrictive of a life style. This story was written and shared with you in appreciation of our natural wildlife, their habitats, and conservation. I hope you enjoyed reading this story. I truly enjoy sharing it.

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  1. Heidi Hines
    December 20, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    That story was just wonderful…I cried and cried a little more at how touching the lessons and journey were. What a gift…Money can’t buy that huney for sure:) Thank you for sharing…Love is the best present anyone may ever receive…
    Hugs!

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