I’ve known the author and conservationist Carl Safina for nearly two decades now. I’ve studied the dogged way he challenged destructive U.S. fisheries practices and earned one of the nation’s most prestigious fellowships in the process. I’ve read drafts of his books-in-progress and seen the way he transforms hours of meticulous field study into lyrical, heartrending (and best-selling) narratives about everything from albatrosses to orcas. These works helped make him, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s former director John Fitzpatrick, “among the most inspiring and forward-thinking naturalists, conservation activists, and writers in our generation.” I’ve observed the push-pull in Carl’s heart that alternately drives him to document tragic environmental losses in the world’s far-flung corners or retreat to his private woodland just to be quiet with a small, local circle of nonhumans.
Truly, I felt I knew him. But recently I’ve started to suspect there’s an owl who knows him more intimately.
The bird in question is a five-year-old Eastern Screech-Owl whom Carl calls Alfie. An animal rehabilitator rescued her as a chick—possibly the discarded prey of a careless crow—and brought her to Carl in the summer of 2018 so matted and infested with fly eggs that she couldn’t determine the species. Being a field-trained ecologist, a former falconer, and a rescuer of other birds, Carl knew he had a screech-owl on his hands. That she was female he would learn only later when he successfully supported Alfie’s transition to free-living adulthood and watched her rear a brood of chicks. In fact, he chose the neutral-sounding name “Alfie” (derived from The Little Rascal’s character Alfalfa) because at first her sex was a mystery.
But the greatest mystery Carl would uncover in Alfie was that, over time, she became more and more open to an interspecies relationship. Not an imaginary friendship like the one that the deluded Timothy Treadwell thought he was having with bears, one of which eventually killed him, in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Nor a hierarchical arrangement of domestication like the one between John Grogan and his Labrador retriever in Marley & Me. Rather, this was a relationship built on the wonder of two very different creatures finding commonality across the gulf of evolutionary divergence; a relationship that stirred Carl to probe the very essence of humanity’s connection to nature in his new book, Alfie & Me.
For a formally educated scientist like Carl, this relationship was both a conundrum and an opportunity. A conundrum because scientists are trained to observe, not intervene. As one of Carl’s human friends, actress and animal advocate Isabella Rossellini, put it: “Science promotes a kind of distance from the subjects studied to preserve objectivity, but without emotions, that back-and-forth necessary to communicate, we will never understand animals totally. Carl does not shy away from relating.”
And in relating lay the opportunity. Because over the course of multiple environmental campaigns and a dozen books, Carl has come to believe that shying away from committing passionately, emotionally, and publicly to the natural world might just be the thing that’s keeping us from saving it.
ong before Carl met Alfie, birds had a way of bursting into what might have otherwise been just another humdrum American life. The child of a special education teacher and a homemaker, he was born in the 1950s near the headwaters of the heavily polluted Newtown Creek. He can still easily slip into the coulda, woulda, fuhgeddaboudit patois of Brooklyn’s outer edges and remembers buying pretzels wholesale for two cents apiece from the bakery around the corner and hawking them for a nickel. And while his early life wasn’t exactly nature-rich, his father liked animals and raised canaries. “I had an opportunity to observe birds at point-blank range,” Carl recalls. “From four inches away I could watch birds hatching from tiny eggs, birds carefully feeding tiny chicks. That’s a fairly unusual way to grow up.”
If it was canaries that initially sparked his interest in animals, it would be a chance encounter with a wild avian visitor that would set his thinking about wildlife aloft. One hot summer night, a bird he’d never seen before flew into the apartment through an open window. Consulting a field guide, his father determined it was an Olive-backed Thrush (also known as Swainson’s Thrush). “It gave me this sense that there were these creatures mysteriously moving about and having some other existence that wasn’t ours,” Carl says.
Seeking out more of these kinds of encounters became an early driver for Carl, who spent countless hours fishing on the Long Island Sound and the open ocean when his family moved to Long Island. As he matured, the thrill of pursuing bluefish, striped bass, and tuna became intertwined with an interest in understanding how different species related to one another in marine environments. While fishing, Carl had followed terns diving on prey fish. So it was a logical next step to make terns the subjects of his Rutgers University Ph.D. dissertation. Venturing out in a small boat, he measured the density of fish where Common Terns were foraging and documented the extent to which these acrobatic seabirds relied on predators like bluefish to drive prey to the surface. Unlike some researchers who tire from hour after monotonous hour of logging animal behavior, Carl was endlessly buoyed up. “Days of heaven,” he calls those times.
Yet Carl never limited himself to amassing data. While undertaking his dissertation research, he felt growing indignation at the inadequate fishing regulations that affected both the fish he caught and the seabirds he studied. “Constantly declining abundance,” Carl says, “led me to ask whether this was a regional, national, and global phenomenon.”
As he investigated the decline he uncovered agency reports containing documentation of damage done by American and European boats off of U.S. shores. Then a chance conversation led Carl to discover that industrial Asian fishing vessels, already notorious in the Pacific Ocean, were moving into the Atlantic; their 25-mile-long drift nets were indiscriminately killing vast numbers of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. He joined forces with groups focused on ending the practice and helped spur the United Nations to ban drift netting. In 1990 he founded the Living Oceans marine conservation program at Audubon and developed the first guide to purchasing sustainable seafood (later published in Audubon magazine). Then, in 1992, he cofounded the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which overhauled U.S. fisheries law by pushing Congress to pass the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act. These policy accomplishments and his groundbreaking first book, Song for the Blue Ocean (1998), earned him a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2000. The $500,000 award effectively freed him to write about how the natural world is changing and what those changes mean for both wildlife and people.
Throughout the early 2000s, peripatetically circling the planet with other experts to document animals in their changing environments became Carl’s stock-in-trade. Whether it was watching albatrosses return from a sea becoming filled with plastics to feed their young in Eye of the Albatross (2002) or documenting the struggles of leatherbacks to nest on the same beachheads year after year in Voyage of the Turtle (2007), he racked up thousands of miles to spend scores of weeks attentively focused on the daily lives of animals.
Carl slowly came to realize that simply informing people about wildlife wasn’t going to save it. He understood that a key element was missing in conservation: empathy. It was then that he made a significant pivot toward actively investigating animals’ inner lives. In Beyond Words (2015) he sought to get into the minds of what he calls “who” animals—beings like wolves, elephants, and orcas who live in structured groups and have documentable individual identity, agency, and emotion. But it wasn’t just individual animals and their identities that were at risk. In addition, he began to understand that entire animal cultures were being thrown into chaos in the Anthropocene, sometimes because poachers robbed them of key leaders, other times because humans lopped off large swaths of their homelands, plunging them into internecine conflict. These cultures, too, needed empathetic understanding and protecting—the core idea for his 2020 book, Becoming Wild.
It’s hard to say what distant territory might have become the grounds for Carl’s next research project had COVID-19 not confined him to the perimeter of his backyard. Fortunately, however, in that backyard was a young, vulnerable owl named Alfie. The time newly afforded by the pandemic meant that Carl could spend dozens of hours a week intimately observing the day-to-day development of this specific creature. It also forced him to reinvestigate the contours of his own home habitat and the qualities of all his most intimate relationships—human and nonhuman. All of this would result in a book that was at once much bigger and much finer in scale than anything Carl had ever attempted.
owadays, if you sit with Carl outside his home on a summer evening, you might find yourself seemingly alone with him, talking about the striper bite off Block Island or the extraordinary memories of African elephants. You might turn away for a moment and then turn back to find that in the intervening seconds an owl has soundlessly appeared on Carl’s shoulder. That owl is Alfie.
Over millions of years owls have evolved specially shaped feathers that make no detectable sound when they move through the air. That adaptation helps them hunt nocturnal prey that rely on audio telltales to avoid their predators. In Alfie’s case, her silent alighting comes off as a pleasant bit of familiarity—like a friend coming up and gently taking your hand. That Alfie feels free to do that—to move between her wild existence and a perch on her friend—is a testament to the journey of understanding that this Eastern Screech-Owl and this Brooklyn-born human have undertaken.
Carl lives with his wife, Patricia Paladines, three dogs, and a flock of chickens in a 110-year-old wooden home in the exurb of Setauket. It is what one might call a “liminal space,” feeling at once secluded and intruded upon. Expansive Norway maples shade a two-thirds-of-an-acre lot that backs up against 30 acres of state land. But vehicles rumble along the Main Street that girds the property line. Cats stalk around, posing a danger to birds and other native wildlife.
These everyday threats have always bugged Carl. But they became darkly ominous when imagined from the perspective of a flightless Alfie.
The plan had been to let Alfie leave naturally once she had matured. But wing feathers that give owls their lift and stealth at first failed to grow in at a normal rate. This prompted Carl to place her under what he calls “protective custody.” He fed her while she was unable to hunt for herself and provided cover while she was still an easy target for predators. In short, he offered her enough care to shield her from danger only until she grew those important feathers, learned to fly, and could confront dangers on her own. All the while he was conscious that he needed to back off and create space for Alfie to take risks. For, as Carl writes, “an owl who is not out doing owly things is just a bird in a cage.”
Carl began to map Alfie’s territory and decode the nature and purpose of her hangouts. He dubbed the leafy tree where she rested and slept the “Ivy Tower.” One of her favorite perches, the “Backdoor Dogwood,” was reserved for hunting and waiting for Carl to emerge from the house. He also learned to recognize her ways of reaching out. At first it was a simple call and response. Screech-owls have two main calls: a high-pitched whinny akin to the neigh of a horse, and a trill or tremolo. But as Carl began spending more and more time in Alfie’s presence, often setting up to write in a chair beneath her nest box, he started to notice a third sound, “a sort of ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh.” He’d never seen it described in the scientific literature. Alfie would utter it when Carl would call to her from outside her nest box. He came to understand that this was a call reserved for the closest contact. “It seemed,” Carl writes, “her call of bonded intimacy and explicit deep trust.”
The special calls only intensified after Alfie acquired a male suitor. Patricia joined Carl in his observations and developed her own close bond with the screech-owl. When a clutch of offspring that Patricia named “The Hoo” arrived, Carl’s sense of his own family became more expansive. It was a natural development for an individual who by habit sought the same level of closeness with nonhumans as with humans.
As the renowned primatologist, anthropologist, and conservationist Patricia Wright put it, “For Carl the whole natural world is like family. He feels a deep closeness to it; he defends nature like you would defend your brother or sister.”
This intuitive sense of relation had always been subtly present in Carl’s work. But in Alfie & Me it becomes overt; Carl makes the very nature of relating the focus of his investigation. Gradually, as he spends pandemic months at home with his wife, with Alfie, with all the creatures in his most immediate universe, it strikes him that relatedness defines our very existence. “Species are relationships,” he writes. “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was a manifestation of relationships among certain giant trees and particular insects of southern swamps. When enough trees were cut down, the woodpecker became impossible.” Therefore, he writes, “when a species declines, it does so because relationships are being unraveled.”
The takeaway is that when we impoverish our relationships, we diminish ourselves. Or as Carl puts it, “What we are is: histories. Who we are is: relationships.”
critical influence in Carl’s writing and career is that he is also a jazz musician. As a drummer who sometimes sits in with the legendary saxophonist Paul Winter, he has an inherent sense of rhythm and timing, and he understands the importance of individual improvisation and evolution. Seeing Miles Davis perform over three decades led him to observe that Davis “never stopped moving into new areas.” Carl wanted the same personal growth that stems from departing from the expected. “It is one of the reasons I am not a professor with a seabird laboratory,” he says.
In this sense, Alfie & Me is his most important improvisation to date. Whereas Carl’s previous melodies tended to work the scales of natural science, the downtime provided by the pandemic gave him a new clef to explore: Indigenous values, ancient Asian philosophies, and early Judeo-Christian theology. Watching at point-blank range as this owl went about bonding with a mate and raising their offspring made him wonder why so many people are so often blind to the events and capacities of the beings around us. Carl sought the answer by asking how cultures around the globe viewed the place of humanity in nature and the cosmos and came to understand one key divergence: Western culture taught that the world itself is not sacred. Early on, its tenets were shaped by the unprovable idea that the physical world was somehow corrupt while a perfect domain awaited somewhere in the afterlife. This division severed society from a natural relationship with other living beings.
This critical breach is essential to the heart-meets-head conclusion Carl reaches in Alfie & Me. After a lifetime of globe-trotting, he arrives at his most essential truth right at home. “The meaning of life is not given,” he writes. “Relationships are the meaning we make.” This, Carl posits, might just be the North Star we need to navigate toward our best life. Despite not believing that pearly gates await him after death, he allows himself one musing: “If there is a final exam at the end of life and its sole question is ‘Did you care?,’ I hope I might at least pass the course.”
Herein he also arrives at a mission plan for the rest of us. Don't wait for an afterlife that may never come. Salvation for people and the planet lies in nurturing and deepening your caring connections with your family—human and otherwise. For Carl, anyway, Alfie was the key to opening this particular door to things that make life matter.
How long Carl’s relationship with Alfie will last is as hard to predict as the duration of any relationship. Sometimes Carl talks about escaping suburbia’s encroachment once and for all and relocating to a wilder place like Southeast Alaska. But he and Patricia know they will never move while they live in Alfie’s territory. Sometimes Alfie will disappear for days at a time and Carl will wonder, “Was that it? Is it over?”
Then, as if from nowhere, Alfie reappears and the friendship between human and bird begins anew.
This story originally ran in the Winter 2023 issue as "Friend to the Owl." To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.