If you’ve watched the national news, you’ve probably seen a piece about “the owl box,” the live feed of a pair of barn owls, McGee and Molly, and their two successive broods in a suburban California backyard. (Try here if the link above is busy, but be quiet: Molly’s sleeping.) Millions of people have watched this thing; at any given time there can be 10,000 pairs of eyes fixated on Molly and her offspring.
Isn’t that fantastic? It’s the best reality show of all. Forget Snooki and her drunken, mass-marketed confreres in contrived encounters. Here is real drama played out in the wild (well, kind of the wild): a mother owl struggling to raise a buttload of chicks. Barn owls live a long time in captivity, but not so long in the wild—there are too many predators, too much disease, and too few nestholes and rodents.
Barn owls (Tyto alba) are beautiful. They’re monogamous, too: McGee feeds Molly while she’s incubating the eggs, and it takes a lot of rodents to feed the brood. They also show an unusual directional asymmetry: the right ear is usually bigger than the left (this probably helps them localize sounds, but the right-side dominance is almost certainly an accidental byproduct of an asymmetry mutation).
The huge interest in Molly and McGee gives me hope that people really do care about nature. Who woulda thought?
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, in memory of my folks, that the owls’ names almost certainly came from the old radio show Fibber McGee and Molly, which ran for nearly a quarter century (1935-1959) and was a favorite of my dad. When I heard those names, I thought, “whoever named those birds are senior citizens.” And sure enough, they were.