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Bay Area Science Festival: A Deep Look at Owls

This past October, I unknowingly found myself giving a talk for the Bay Area Science Festival. On a topic I knew absolutely nothing about.

One day a grad student came up to me at my office in the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ), where I work. “Gordon, would you like to help out at an event with KQED Deep Look? They’re kicking off the Bay Area Science Festival and are looking for assistants!” Deep Look is a Youtube series dedicated to showing animals and nature up close. I love science outreach, and love Deep Look, so without a thought I said “Of course, sign me up!” “Great, I’ll send you details soon.” A couple hours go by, and he comes back and tells me I’ll be presenting on owls. “Cool! Wait...presenting, on something I’ve never studied before?”

Two days later, I arrive at an event center in SF, armed with an appetite for the free food that’s on its way (starving grad student problems), and an even larger appetite to learn as much about owls as I can so I don’t make a fool of myself in two hours. I meet the Deep Look crew, and tell them I am a grad student from SF State/curatorial assistant from the MVZ, and that I happen to know nothing about owls but that I got recruited to give a talk on them as nobody else was available to do so. Well ain’t that just great. The Deep Look folks didn’t seem too phased, and told me “Great! We look forward to your presentation in a couple hours. Don’t worry, you’ll only be talking for five minutes.” Five minutes?

In between free tamales, I furiously Googled everything there was to learn about owls. Had they asked me to talk about amphibians, that would’ve been no trouble at all, as I actually study those for my Master’s, but no, it had to be owls. “Alright, so owls...hunt, and fly…” With half an hour left before my presentation, I still had nothing to talk about.

Come time for the event, and I prayed to Darwin that I would not look like a fool in front of the audience of 100+ people, and that I would be able to retain some of the info I had learned just minutes before. They played the first video, which was on how owl feathers are structured to enable silent flight to help them hunt stealthily. As I got up to the podium, I said “Hello name’s Gordon...can everyone hear me ok? Yeah?...So about owls, let me tell you about how else they are efficient predators…” Once I actually started my presentation, I luckily became much less nervous. I mentioned that owls have tube shaped eyes that allow for increased visual clarity, but at a cost of being unable to move their eyes, which resulted in the need to evolve extra neck vertebrae to allow for increased head rotation to allow for the eyes to look around. The audience was actually engaged in my talk, great! I was making progress. I continued by mentioning owl hearing, and that they can use their facial feathers to direct sound to their ears in order to accurately pinpoint prey. Before I knew it, the five or so minutes were up, my host who was also on stage with me gave some finishing words, and I was done! The audience seemed pleased, and so was I.

After the event, the Deep Look crew and audience members came up to me and told me I did a great job of explaining these birds of the night. Some even asked me specific questions on owl behavior, as if they thought I was an expert or something! I was flattered. I even got the contact info of some of the Deep Look members, and they told me to keep in touch with them if possible. Nice! If school has taught me anything, it’s the ability to pull a topic out of your ass and became well-versed in it in no time flat. Go Gordon! Now, where were those tamales again?...

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