On Barn Owls

Cutting into owls’ skulls to expose their brains, screwing and gluing metal devices onto their heads, poking electrodes around in fully conscious birds’ brains—at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), Shreesh Mysore does all this and more, even though he admitted during a seminar that the results of his experiments on these animals in his lab could be misleading.

Barn owl, Tyto alba

I first objected to this story, when I heard about it in 2018 from an email from PETA. I believe it used the kind of graphic words as used above. I did some digging, thinking they may be exaggerated but no, legit bird torture. I read an article where Shreesh Mysore gives an interview in which he states he had no pets in the home growing up. Of course he did not. What he does is torture, including the way in which the owls are raised. Being attended to by the best in veterinarians is no consolation when the same veterinarians are allowing the researchers to keep them alive longer in order to torture (ahem, research) them further

I am writing to you regarding the treatment of barn owls in Shreesh P. Mysore’s study “Multisensory Competition and Spatial Selection: Neural Circuit and Computational Mechanisms,” happening at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, United States. If you were to describe the actions being done to the birds to any non-scientist, they would describe it as torture. Manipulating barn owls in such ways in order to “study” the brain, and ultimately, better understand and treat disorders like schizophrenia and ADHD in humans is fanciful, at best. The chance that valuable human extrapolations can be found by studying a Barn owl’s brain is low to nothing. These owls are raised in captivity since birth and deprived of critical exposure to environment, sustained exercise, interactions with many different individuals of the same and other species. That is just for starters.

PETA had major concerns with this study.

Next time you’re outside, I invite you to watch the birds (or any living thing) around you. I’m lucky enough that I get to walk for several hours every day, so maybe I see more than you do. But what I see are some amazing, complex, unique behaviors that show that birds are capable of. Once, a mother and her ducklings are crossing a busy 5-lane highway midday. An American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) swoops down very closely to the ducks and vocalizes, urging them across. Luckily, the truck drivers and cars stopped so they all made it safely. The crow saw what was happening, understood the danger to another bird, and alerted mother duck to her error. What possible benefit could that have been to the crow? To me, it seems like there was no benefit to the crow, and it took the risk of being hit by a vehicle. I have also seen a group of crows harass an American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) on this same highway, apparently trying to injure or kill it. So no, they are not all altruistic. But these disparate behavior towards other species indicate a deeper understanding than I think most people give to “bird brains.”

Thousands of crows make a sojourn to a certain area on a regular basis, they take the same route each time, in large groups separated by up to a mile distance. Some of the separate groups are not within earshot or eyesight of each other. My house is along their route. I have seen them do it once a week, or not for months at a time. Once I happened to be in the part of town (5.6 miles away, as the crow flies) that they were congregating in, crows spread over about a half mile, all very low on any kind of stationary object.


The blue jay we have in Western Washington is the Steller’s Jay, with a very particular call. Even though nothing gets past a bald eagle, they see us much sooner than we see them, the Steller’s Jays squawk loudly and incessantly to alert the eagles to our presence.

The eagles themselves exhibit elaborate rituals, interact socially, and act as guards of their own kind, and to a lesser extent, other animals. The juvenile birds tend to be less wary of humans than the adults. They make decisions about how close they will let certain people get to them. A park worker who is in the same areas, same hours, full-time, for over 20 years has told us he has gotten “as close as 1,000 feet” from the eagles. I have been walking and been 20 feet from a juvenile bald eagle. We saw the same female more than once, and we knew it was her because of distinctive facial markings that looked like a mask, as she was in the process of getting her white head. The eagle maturation process takes four years.

I have seen a common raven (Corvus corax), crouched in a pile of leaves, allow us to capture him easily, with the help of a bird rescue person, as he was very sick. He was rushed to a vet, but quickly succumbed to his organ failure, likely due to rat poison.

Flock of birds flying in the sky

The actions of these common birds demonstrate more than instincts and reactions to stimuli. These are sentient beings, with souls and individual personalities, just like us. They are not merely bundles of nerves, well, not any less than we are.

Close up of a raven's beak

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals.”

Mohandes Gandhi (1869 – 1948)

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