An Owl Essay by Linda Stryker, PhD
October 26, 2013
The World-Famous Owls of San Marcos
Linda Stryker, PhD
In February 2010, a pair of barn owls came upon a very nice owl box on a fifteen-foot pole in San Marcos, California. The box was spacious, near numerous trees, and close to fields that contained an abundance of rodent dinners for the owls’ nighttimes under the stars. The owners of the owl home were Carlos and Donna Royal, who had waited two years for tenants to find their owl box. Cameras were already in place in the box’s wall and wires ran down the pole to the Royal’s dining room, soon to be known as Command Central. They shared the unfolding drama of owl goings-on with relatives, and, seeing how well that was received, Carlos decided to put the private lives of barn owls on Ustream, a web-based live-video site. Thereafter ensued a series of astonishing events that unfolded over the next eight months.
At first, only a handful of people watched, then more, then many more. After a few months, almost twenty million hits had been recorded; this represented about fifteen million households. The owls, now named Molly and McGee, became the most watched program ever on Ustream. A concurrent Social Stream and a Chat Room were well moderated, to expel troublesome trolls and robotic messages. These social areas followed simple rules: no ages/religion/politics, no final game scores, keep it G-rated, and be nice to each other.
Teachers showed the owl video streams in their classrooms, and occasionally, they would receive a live-stream visit (similar to Skype) from Carlos, who could answer the children’s questions. Newspapers in San Diego, and even the New York Times, ran stories; television studios came calling. Carlos and the Owl Box were featured on NBC Nightly News, the Today Show, Fox and Friends, and CBS Early News. This was truly an extraordinary experience for millions of people all around the world.
Soon, the spectacle snowballed into another amazing sociological wonderland.
After the one-pound owls had settled into their new home, Molly laid six eggs and McGee dutifully provided mice, gophers, and rats as ‘treats’ for Molly. One egg disappeared. Four eggs hatched and soon toddler owlets were growing. The last egg went past its hatching date and watchers mourned over the lost potential, naming it Dudley.
During the next few months, viewers witnessed the wonders of nature. Molly was an ideal mother. She touched the owlets, cleaned them, tore off meat shreds to feed each one, protected them, and nurtured them to their fledging time and beyond by assisting McGee when the life-long mates eventually taught the owlets to hunt on their own. Viewers saw the growth of the owlets from naked, strange-looking little beasts to fluffy youngsters, to dapper teenagers, and to handsome young adults. Watchers said, “simply wonderful, warm, and charming,” “a unique reality show of pure owl life.”
A second camera recorded the night view outside the owl box so all could watch the delivery of treats. Some people opened two browsers so they could watch inside and outside the box at the same time.
Then, the most amazing things emerged from the viewers, the Royals, and other talented people. Cartoons appeared, drawn by John Atkinson, a well-known artist in the film industry. The World’s Most Famous Barn Owls, a children’s book about Molly and McGee, was written by noted author Eric Blehm, with illustrations by designer Chris Adams. Subscriptions sprang up for these items and for an enormous e-cookbook compiled from recipes submitted by viewers. Video-plays starring owl puppets appeared on YouTube. Teacher/singer/composer Barbara Allen wrote songs about Molly and McGee and their first clutch of owlets: Max, Pattison, Austin and Wesley.
From their coloring, it was deduced that three were female, Austin the male. Allen taught her class of fourth-grade students “The Molly Song”, which they recorded and sent to Carlos. Viewers sang their hearts out whenever Carlos played the music on air. “[Molly] brought the world together, with modern technology.” Viewers bought an hour-long DVD of selected images and videos of events in the lives of the owls, narrated by Carlos and compiled by Austin Faure, the Royal’s teenage grandson.
Carlos’s professional pictures with news updates about the number of treats delivered, checkpoints of owl maturation, and owl informational links, were, and still are, available on his blog [https://mollysbox.wordpress.com/blog/]. One day, Carlos used Skype and a few watchers appeared on the stream––live––before tens of thousands of viewers. Your author was the first to appear.
Whenever Carlos appeared on screen, viewers commented about how they felt peaceful and reassured; most posted their gratefulness that the Royals provided them this opportunity to participate in the owls’ lives. Carlos and Donna established a Café Press store where viewers could order cups and tee shirts. Soon the enterprise ballooned into almost anything one could think of that could be produced with pictures of owls on it. Totes, infant wear, framed prints, calendars, even men’s underwear––you name it. Author Blehm started an online business to sell books, jewelry, hand puppets and owl-box kits. Viewers asked for owl images on more things, and so the shoppers’ list grew to huge proportions.
The most amazing thing was to be found among the viewers themselves. The audience used the social areas of the stream to bond together as a substitute family––one that happened to include owls. Worries about the welfare of the owlets were voiced from time to time––as when Molly first left the owlets unattended for twenty-four hours––before viewers understood owl nature. Viewers cried to Carlos, “Please buy some mice and throw them up into the box.” No need; Molly began leaving for longer periods when she knew the youngest owlet was able to swallow a mouse by itself.
Names became associated with items, such as the pole, the rabbit scurrying about underneath the box in the afternoon (Tauntz), owl elimination (Squirtz), and the ‘rug’ in the box, formed from regurgitated fur and bone (Gag Shag). In fact, an entire group language of terms and abbreviations grew up in the Chat and Social Rooms. An Owl Box Lexicon appeared. One special viewer early on had been spontaneously designated “Princess Mascot of the Chat Room.” One viewer wrote and posted dozens of limericks; other poets and haikuists emerged. Carlos’s rallying cry for the millions of owl watchers was “Gee, isn’t this fun? And we are part of it!”
Over the eight months, chatters talked about food and movies, played guessing games during quiet times while waiting for ‘owl events’ such as horking, also called casting, when an owl upchucks a fur-and-bone pellet, an arrival of a parent, a feeding, a first-time excursion out of the box, or a first-time flight. Watchers obtained bumper stickers that read, “Hork if you love Molly.” Viewers advised each other about gardening, cooking and illnesses. They comforted each other, shared grief when someone lost a family member or a beloved pet. Grandbabies were born, spouses went to the hospital, and all in the viewer family were there to lend support. Many said they were uplifted from depression or sadness or illness by caring about the owls, thus taking their thoughts away from their own problems. This was their life.
Next, the owl lovers wanted to meet each other. There was a gathering in San Marcos, the town where Molly and McGee lived. Three hundred people attended. They brought owl cookies, owl artwork, owl tee shirts, owl hats, owl cupcakes, and much more. Faure put the get-together live on Ustream so the rest of the viewers could vicariously participate. Other places in the United States followed suit, in cities such as Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Phoenix, Seattle, and in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts and other states. Pictures of these events were shown on Ustream or on personal sites, the links of which were provided to all.
There was great sorrow and gnashing of teeth when the last owlet, little Wesley fledged and left the box. By late June, all owls were gone. Carlos and Donna came on and briefly said their good-byes. Carlos pulled the plug. The owl box stream was over and out.
Devastated chatters quickly devised a Yahoo website to continue talking; the artist, John Atkinson set up a Ustream site to keep the group running. The Royals made ready to leave on their long overdue and much deserved vacation.
And then . . .
Molly and McGee returned. Carlos and Donna decided to stay home and stream the new clutch as well. Carlos improved his cameras and built a better porch for the box. Watchers had the joy of witnessing four more eggs appear and hatch. Two survived: Ashley and Carrie. More products were produced at the urging of watchers. More gatherings took place. Because this clutch hatched in warmer weather, McGee brought fewer, but larger, treats; owlet growth and development happened at a faster rate than it had with the first set of owlets. Carlos erected a misting device above the box to cool the surrounding air as it was thought that excessive summer heat might have contributed to the loss of the two littlest owlets in this clutch: Kelly and Jody.
Chatters have often wondered: whatever did they do before sitting hours in front of the Owl Box, watching this spectacle of nature? Molly the Owl’s Ustream site, the Social Stream and Chat Room ceased broadcasting in October 2010, soon after Ashley and Carrie fledged and left the box for good. The barn owl reality show ended; viewers had to go back to whatever it was they used to do. But it wouldn’t be the same ol’, same ol.’
As one viewer put it: “We are forever changed. We lived with owls.”
© Linda Stryker
“First published in Emeritus Voices Journal”