“Shaving is tricky with an owl on your right shoulder.”
Especially when the owl sees it as a game, pecking at the razor at the end of each stroke and trying to eat the shaving cream. Meet Mumble, the Tawny Owl with whom Martin Windrow shared 15 years of his life.
Introduced to birds of prey through his older brother Dick, Windrow decides to get one of his own. Enter Wellington, a Little Owl (a species, not a description). It is a disaster from the start. The appropriately named owl (with the Duke’s iron will) had not been hand-reared by a human, and all of Windrow’s attempts to win his trust are met with deep suspicion. Eventually, Wellington escapes.
The second time around is completely different. Windrow’s owl is one of a batch of eggs that are hatched under Dick’s care. When Dick’s son is given the privilege of naming the owl, he calls her Marmite Sandwich, after his favourite thing. Windrow finds Marmite Sandwich in the kitchen, a little ball of feathers with large, shiny eyes.
“‘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.”
On the drive home, the owl escapes from her box and perches on his shoulder throughout the drive, taking a “delicate beak-grip” on his ear to steady herself. Windrow rechristens her Mumble for her way of holding a “quiet conversation with herself, me and the world at large”. And that is the start of a beautiful relationship.
Back in his apartment, Mumble settles into Wellington’s old cage, a large aviary on his balcony (which he has to keep secret from his landlord). Living with what is essentially a wild bird is fascinating, and Windrow is a keen observer. Mumble has a definite personality. She is eternally curious, loves drinking from a dripping tap, riding on the carriage of a typewriter as he types and exploring the back of shelves. Her curiosity can sometimes get her into trouble, like the time she leans over a little too far over the dishwashing water and falls in (and mutters irritably to herself as she slowly dries off). She also tries to feed Windrow bits of raw chicken, and when he avoids the morsels, she tries to stuff them into his ear instead.
As an owlet she is fine with visitors, but as an adult bird she is possessive and attacks anyone else who comes into the apartment. Windrow and Mumble eventually move to the country where she has a larger aviary outdoors.
Windrow’s observations of Mumble are interspersed with a lot of information about owls in general: the different species, how they are coping with the way humans are changing the landscape and their place in folklore. He is obviously passionate about owls and at the end of this book, I felt I had learned a lot about these wonderful birds.