Article authored by Benjamin Malloy, father of Oscar Malloy, and teacher at Berkeley Arts Magnet.
Oscar Malloy is a unique kid, so it’s only natural that his love of birds began in a unique way. It began at his grandparents’ house in Pittsfield, MA. There is an archway, an open, covered space used for grilling, outdoor summer dinners, watching sunsets, and a favorite place for pigeons to poop.
In an effort to deter the splatter-painting pigeons, Oscar’s grandparents hung a few life-size pretend owls used in gardens as scarecrows. Oscar became obsessed with these swaying statues.
Oscar has an obsessive personality. Since he was an infant riding the New York City Subway, he’s loved trains. After moving to the Bay Area, he proceeded to study the BART Map and all the stops on his line. Along with trains, he became very interested in mascots of sports teams, often fixating on if they are real or not.
When it came to undeniably real animals, like dogs or cats, Oscar was (and still is) scared. “I’m terrified of dogs, but can my sister pet it?” He often says to dog-walkers in a voice slightly louder than necessary. But he loved trains, mascots, and eventually, these pretend owls.
He became so enamored with the pretend owls that he decided to name them. He named them all Jon. Jon 1, Jon 2, Jon 3, Jon 4, and, of course, Jon 5. “Let’s go check on the Jons!” Oscar would say multiple times a day. In an attempt to escape the 10th time ‘checking on the Jons’, family members would often answer his question with a question.
“Oscar, why do you like the Jons so much?”
“Because they’re not real.”
Trains, mascots, pretend owls, all full of movement, all void of life. Yet the Jons, these pretend owls, eventually led to curiosity about real owls. He started checking out books about owls from his school library. Soon we were planning family hikes based on places we read owls might live.
After many wonderful yet owl-free hikes, we took Oscar to the Lindsay Wildlife Experience, an animal hospital/museum that specializes in rehabbing injured birds of prey, especially owls. The up-close, live owl action he’d been wanting not only fueled his owl obsession, but it also opened up his bird interests to hawks, eagles, and kites.
Soon we got some real bird books, like Birds of Northern California, and Oscar would demand that we read him the owl pages over and over. After rereading the owl pages countless times, Oscar eventually let us check out the other bird sections. He quickly began to appreciate the other sections of the book. Family hikes were still characterized by constant searching for owls, but now when any bird was seen, there was a new eagerness to identify it. The pattern of hiking, checking the bird book, hiking, checking the bird book began to repeat, and Oscar became more and more informed and motivated. Then his mom got backyard feeders! He could now identify even more familiar birds right from his backyard! New bird books were purchased and continue to be read, studied, and reread.
As part of Quarantine Homeschool, Oscar and his sister, Ruby, made a Backyard Birds book of all the birds we've identified in their backyard. Most days during COVID include a hike, and locations are usually chosen for their bird-watching potential. Perhaps the highlight of shelter-in for Oscar was a family walk at dusk at the Berkeley Marina. After the sun went down, we spotted a barn owl returning to a nest box full of whining owlets before flying off and encountering another barn owl! At one point, the second owl was flying right at us, and a grinning Oscar said, “I’m so happy right now.” Birds give him so much joy.
His newest obsession is studying the Bird Song book he recently acquired from a dear friend. Thanks to Oscar, his entire family is aware of, appreciative of, and excited by birds! Thanks, Jons!