When they told me I'd be plucking owls, I laughed. Not in disbelief – I was working for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a government funded research outfit attached to the University of Lancaster, and though I was technically an admin assistant I was well used to having a scientist hand me a box of soil samples and tell me where to stick them (usually in an oven). But this latest task was just too surreal. You don't pluck owls! What would an owl even look like without its feathers? Would the head, with it's 180 degrees of rotation, prove to be attached to the body by a spine, or with a ball and socket joint? Maybe the head was just floating in place – removing the protective forcefield of feathers would cause it to drop off and roll away with a noise like a billiard-ball.
The fact that I would be burning the owls down to ash in a total-combustion oven called a muffle (“You'll need to ramp up the muffle five or six times a day to stop them from exploding”) sealed the deal. This was absurd. It was hilarious! And because it was absurd and hilarious it was something I could put well and truly out of my mind.
Two weeks later and Cath, my line manager, pulls two owls in polythene pockets out of a plastic box, where they've been defrosting for two days. I recognize them immediately as the British barn-owl, the island's most famous owl species. Even hunched up in the forced postures of death they are achingly beautiful. The folded fans of their wings are a beautiful tawny colour, mottled by tiny eyelets of grey and white that band the animal across its back and sides. Their underside is covered in pure white feathers that are visibly soft to the touch. Clawed feet reach out of the conical bundle of each bird, curled up into final death-grips, tipped with curved blades. It occurs to me that these will be the most beautiful things I have ever destroyed.
Cath shows me the recording procedure to maintain chain of custody over the samples before and after they're plucked, and demonstrates the use of the new balance in the bio-hazard lab. The bio-hazard fume cupboard is a nice piece of stainless steel kit that makes a reassuring racket while the fans are on. “You won't need a face-mask while your working in there.”
Two large polythene pockets are set aside for each owl and labeled up as “Sample # – feathers”.
“That's a lot of feathers.” I say.
Cath nods. “Pop the owl in that bag. One of the first things we worked out was that if you don't pluck the birds inside a bag the feathers go everywhere.”
“When should I change over from one bag to the other?”
“When there's more feathers than bird in there.” I must look incredulous, because she says: “You'll see.”
Cath shows me how to pluck.
“Start on the chest.” She turns the tiny bundle onto its back. The head lolls around. Is the neck broken? “This is the easy bit.” Her hand darts in and out several times, each time plucking up a small clump of white feathers. Underneath the white coat is a layer of grey-black fur. My mind immediately turns to decay and rot. How old are these samples? How long before they made it into a freezer? But this layer is just the down, the fine, fluffy feathers designed to trap in warmth. She clears this rapidly and there is now a patch of bald flesh on the bird. The skin is grey to pink, pimpled.
“The chest is the easy bit. Once you've done that you'll have an easier time with everything else. She lifts one leg on the bird. It is very, very long – the full extent has so far been hidden within an obscuring cloud of belly fluff. “Look how strong that is.” Scale an owl up to the farcical sizes of modern poultry and this would be one hell of a drumstick. “The legs aren't too hard. The ends are a bit difficult, near the feet, so don't worry about doing them.”
She takes one wing by its tip and lifts it. The wing extends neatly. It is a very capable piece of engineering. At its full extent the wing presents a plane almost a foot across, yet releasing it causes it to fold in on itself until it packs down to just a few inches. I remember from long-ago biology lessons that the feather which make up the plane of the wing tilt like a shutter: when the wing is beating up the shutter opens, allowing air to pass through; on the downbeat the shutter snaps closed and air resistance propels the bird forward.
“This bit here,” Cath indicates the final joint on the outstretched wing, “It's mostly just feathers. You can just break it. Elaine or I will come along later and clip it off with some sheers.”
“The only other difficult bit is the bum.” She turns the bird onto its front to reveal the little fan of tail-feathers. “You need a good grip. You should grip the feather between finger and thumb and grab the bird with as much force as you pull the feather out with. You can do some damage to the skin if you're not careful.” I grip and rip. What I had thought to be one feather comes out as two, their tips red with congealed blood. “Well, don't worry too much.” Cath consoles me. “You will rip the skin. Just try not to.”
Cath watches me as I get started. The first few plucks seem to go okay, clusters of bird fluff coming out as I pull. Then my finger finds darkness at the center of the bird. There doesn't seem to be anything there.
“Something must have had its little guts.” Says Cath. “Try and be careful around that. It does happen, they're not that fresh. I think you're ready to do this. Oh. But watch out for the head. You won't be able to do all of the head. Have you got any questions?”
Just one. “Could you turn Radio 4 on?” All the labs have portable radios plugged in alongside the balances and milling machines. They're so ubiquitous I wonder why the firm that outfitted the rooms for the scientists didn't build them into the walls, alongside the panic buttons and decontamination showers.
“I think this radio only does Radio 2.”
It's a British dilemma. Radio 4 (talk radio, a mixture of documentaries, magazine shows and the occasional agriculture-fixated drama) would be a sufficiently somber accompaniment to the disrobing of an owl, whereas Radio 2 might expose me to Chris Evans.
“Yeah, put it on.”
I set to work pulling apart an owl to the sound of Robbie William's new single, “Morning Sun.” Soft feathers, the white feathers on the chest and the tawny feathers on the back, come out comparatively easily. The nearest reference for this sensation is ripping grass out; not by the roots, but so that the stem tears just above the earth. There's no noise as the feathers come out, but I can feel the “Rrrrip!” through my fingers.
Angle seems to have something to do with how difficult it is to pull out any given pinch of feathers, so I tilt and rotate the bird inside the plastic bag, mixing up the body with the feathers I've already plucked. After just a few minutes there are already enough of them to be a nuisance. Every time I move the bird the head rolls about limply. I'm certain that there's something wrong with the neck. Certainly broken – that's what killed the bird, I decide. An experimental foray into clearing the neck seems to confirm as much: I see an open wound, the spine a broken remnant inside, obviously disconnected from the body. As I carry on with the body I can't shake the image of the owl's severed head tumbling around inside the bag, mixed up in the growing cloud of feathers.
But the more I pluck, the more I learn about the strength of the bird. The skin is very resilient to breakages. I create a few little tears on the wings (once clear of feathers, it's hard not to think of them as malformed arms) and there is so little flesh on them that this is enough to reveal the tiny bone inside. Otherwise the bird survives even my most brutal assaults. What had seemed to be a decayed hole in the bird's stomach turns out to be a sunken and malnourished belly, perhaps the cause of the animals death.
The neck itself is both intact and very long, another secret that was concealed by feathers. This bird's neck might be broken, it might not be – that famous swiveling head is surely enabled by the flexibility of the spine, but I can fold this head back so it touches the bird's back.
It gets hard to see the bird inside the jungle of feathers so I change bags and carry on. I'm leaving the head for last. The pinion feathers in the wing come out one feather at a time, each feather requiring a dedicated yank, and I save the wing tips of the cadaver from being sheared off by pulling those feathers out by hand - I must have stronger wrists than Cath. I pluck the legs down to the socks.
The back of the head plucks easily. The feathers are tiny, the same size and rough shape as leaves on an edible marigold. But the famous heart-shaped mask of the Barn owl is stubborn. These precisely curved feathers are difficult to pull. With each pluck I get at most two feathers, each one diminutive between my blue-gloved fingers.
Cath comes to my rescue. Two hours have passed between me and the bird, it seems. “You should get some lunch. Oh! You've done as good a job as I do.” She's happy with my work. “I can't get those ones round the eyes either, so I just leave them. You can tidy up.”
I'm left weighing and tidying the cadaver. In the medieval age the Barn owl was a symbol of death, a silent killer that had the face of a ghost and did not announce its presence before it fell upon its unsuspecting pray. Now, bereft of its feathers, this bird is a symbol of death fit for the modern day. Its naked limbs are scrappy and pointless nubs. Prying open the efficient curved beak I discover that the bird's gullet is lined with blood. The eyes, so proportionally massive that were they scaled up to fit a human they would be the size of grape-fruits, are sunken and dehydrated inkblots. The eerie swiveling neck, stripped of its feathers and its mystery, is a scrawny and ridiculous mess. The powerful and deadly legs are naked and goose-pimpled, except for the feet which are clad in fluffy white socks. This bird is a joke.
That night in bed I look at my girlfriend while she sleeps. Her arms are incredibly naked, unbearably bare except for a fine fuzz of hair which I can only think of as “downy.” Her long dark hair seems to be unbearably transient, as if a hot shower and some soap would wash it away.