FÍting the founder and praising the owl

FÍting the founder and praising the owl McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 22, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 11
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > February 22, 2001 > FÍting the founder and praising the owl

Fêting the founder and praising the owl

It has no equivalent on the main campus. Somehow, those of us down here haven't seen fit to celebrate the birth of James McGill, without whom this prize piece of land on which we work and study and play would now likely be luxurious housing and not the vibrant, evolving and exquisitely located university that it is.

Photo Katherine McKeever speaks as Sir William looks on
PHOTO: Owen Egan

But our other half to the west, Macdonald Campus, isn't nearly so bashful. Every year, for the past 70-odd years, students, staff, alumni, retirees and the occasional animal have celebrated Founder's Day to thank Sir William Christopher Macdonald for having had the generosity and foresight to found a college so that rural people could have access to higher education.

A few weeks ago, at least 400 gathered to celebrate the late tobacco magnate's birthday over cake, lunch -- on biodegradable plates, no less -- and a delightful talk on owls.

Of course, much of Macdonald Campus's mission has changed since its opening in 1907. Training schoolteachers, one of the three specialties of the original college, for instance, has long since happened downtown and the schools of agriculture and household science have evolved into the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition.

Yet, while the breadth of subjects taught and researched has changed dramatically since Macdonald's day, Dean Deborah Buszard maintains that serving a rural clientele remains at the heart of Macdonald.

"We've taken the vision of serving the rural community to serving the global community, which is still 50 per cent rural," she said in her Founder's Day address given a few days short of Macdonald's birthday on February 10. Not surprisingly, one-third of the campus's student body is comprised of international students. What may be surprising to many downtown McGillians, however, is the fact that 50 per cent of students are francophone.

While Sir William Macdonald was generous with McGill, he was extraordinarily tight with himself -- wearing clothes "until they turned green with age," wrote his biographer J.F. Snell -- and with his family. Having never married, this sixth child of seven children left not a cent to his nieces and nephews.

Rather, upon his death in 1917, Sir William left his estate to Walter and T. Howard Stewart, the sons of his business associate, David Stewart. Walter Stewart continued to support the college, as did his son David. The Macdonald-Stewart Foundation, presided over by Mrs. David C. Stewart, widow of Walter's son, continues to support Macdonald Campus.

Known for her support of projects of a future-looking sort, Mrs. Stewart expressed her pride that one such project, the EcoResidence, initiated by student Alexandra zum Felde, won this year's Prix d'excellence from the Association des architectes du Québec. "I am especially pleased by the students who come here to share their passion for knowledge to make the world a better place," she concluded, echoing Macdonald's motto for the campus: "Mastery for Service."

Passion and a quest for knowledge aptly describe Katherine McKeever, the Founder's Day speaker, who depicted in words and slides her three decades of living "In the Company of Owls."

Calling the poorly understood large birds of prey "oversexed, foolish, half-wits stuck in a caged world," McKeever explained that the changes to owls' environment since industrialization have been too rapid for the birds' capacity to evolve.

"They've been around for more than three million years, virtually unchanged. They had evolved to be perfectly suited for their environment until 300 years ago," said McKeever. "It's been downhill since then."

Aptly enough, McKeever, 76, found her passion for the large birds of prey when her first ever attempt at saving an injured owl was fouled by the pesticides in the worms she was feeding the chick. "It took me 11 days to kill that bird and it was out of remorse that I've been driven to save and to understand these birds."

Twenty-six years ago, McKeever and her husband Larry McKeever, having already begun to care for sick and injured owls in their Peterborough, Ontario home, moved to land Katherine's father had given her, the same land in Vineland, Ontario --"22 minutes from Niagara Falls"-- where she grew up, to start The Owl Foundation.

In their four acres of "cages," the 220 owls, representing all 15 Canadian species, "have a magnificent view of the estuary [of the Jordan River]."

McKeever, for her part, has her own magnificent view of the birds, but not eye-to-eye. In fact, she explained, one should avoid making eye contact with owls. "When you bring the food and water to them you avert your eyes or go in backwards. Making eye contact is interpreted as a threat."

Observing the owls is done on the 26 TV monitors, and McKeever and her staff of five keep regular charts of all the birds. Mr. McKeever, 17 years his wife's senior, has Parkinson's disease, but remains an avid fundraiser

Surprisingly, there is very little known about owls in North America and McKeever has learned much by trial and error. In the early years, for instance, she would try to match-make barn owls but to no avail. "It was only after working with owls for 10 years that I realized that the female barn owl has to choose her own mate and that can take five years," she said, explaining that these owls bond for life.

Providing choice -- of mate or perch or shelter -- is the key to reducing the stress in the bird's lives which, in turn, keeps them healthy. Hence the enormous "cages," which can be as big as 3,000 square feet in the case of the great grey owl. Hence, too, the McKeevers' creation of "corridors," built above the particular owl species' enclosure which allow the young to leave to a seperate area, when they're ready.

The whole place is conceived to keep the owls wild so that at least the offspring of the injured bird may be returned to its native environment.

McKeever receives owls from all over North America, which makes for some long flights -- in planes, that is -- for some of the owls. "Burrowing owls should be bred out west in Saskatchewan where they come from, but no one else yet has a rehabilitation facility," she laments. "Out west, badgers and prairie dogs dig burrows for these owls." The birds are quick to capitalize on another animal's labour.

This owl -- er, at least, the female of the species -- is of the sex-crazed variety. The antithesis of the barn owl, the female burrowing owls "roll around like idiots" while the males call "cuckooroo" for eight minutes then hop on the females. Once the female is through with the male's services as provider and parent, she stops acknowledging him and he is thrown out of the burrow. In fact, said McKeever, in the fall she has to take the males away to keep them warm because the females refuse them entry into the burrow.

To keep the birds wild and to prepare them for life on their own, McKeever has the fledglings hunt live mice and fly in specially built training cages where they can go for a 100-feet stretch. "We are a recycling plant that gets the good genes back into the wild population."

The permanent residents, those owls whose injuries, such as blindness, deafness or a wing disability, are caused mostly by gunshots, cars or traps, are fed dead mice, hamsters or insect larvae, depending on the species. McKeever's bedtime ritual is to take 300-400 dead rodents out of the freezer to defrost for the feeding next day.

Between the feeding, writing, charting, fundraising, looking after her husband and planning for her numerous speaking and consultation engagements around the world, McKeever has little time for sleep.

It's fundamental research and unconditional love along the lines of Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and Beruté Galdikas -- though McKeever is quick to point out that she has all the comforts of home, while the primate trinity had more discomfort and danger to contend with.

"I feel that I lead a very privileged life," she concluded to the enraptured audience. "I sit there and say 'Why the hell are they doing that?' and then what I've really learned is how little I know."

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