Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a fascinating deep dive into a world so mysterious, it’s almost supernatural – the world of owls. An accomplished writer of ornithological books including The Genius of Birds and The Way of Birds, Ackerman now turns towards a bird that has charmed her since her childhood. On the Barnes & Noble podcast Poured Over, Ackerman relates the story of how she set up an owl box as a child. An Eastern Screech Owl took up residence soon enough. Thus began her education into the life of an owl.
In What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s most Enigmatic Birds (352 pages, Penguin Press), Ackerman dispels the myth of “An owl is an owl is an owl”. She introduces us to the tiny Elf owl which weighs a meagre 40g, to the Blakiston’s Fish Owl which is “as large as a fire hydrant”, and a number of varied species of owls in between. There are owls who are nocturnal, and others who are diurnal. There are owls who migrate long distances, and others who migrate only on certain years. There are owls who eat lemmings, others who eat insects, and yet others who eat venomous creatures. The astounding variation among species and sub-species is an eye-opener.
We find out about the amazing life of an owl – how they hunt, how they mate, how they raise owlets, their almost soundless flight, their migration strategies, and the extraordinary adaptations of their body that enable them to do all of this.
Interspersed with beautiful photographs of the alluring birds, Ackerman’s descriptive prose makes the reader feel like they are on an owl adventure themselves. Ackerman is not afraid to get her hands dirty. In the course of writing the book, she helped trap Burrowing Owls in the hot muddy vacant lots of Maringa in southern Brazil and travelled to the snow-capped Mission Mountains of Montana to watch the dusk-time flight of a Short-eared Owl – a performance that the bird puts up for the benefit of its prospective mate during breeding season.
She takes us through these unique experiences and paints a vivid word-picture. Sample this description of the Short-eared Owl’s flight skills: “The bird flaps his wings slowly and floppily, erratic as a big night moth. Then, suddenly, he takes a short sideways dive, followed by a dramatic upward swoop. A few minutes later, he does it again. Listen closely, and that slanted dive has a sound, like the flutter of a little flag in strong wind. As the owl drops, he brings together his long wings beneath him and beats them together with short clapping strokes, eight, ten, eleven times in rapid succession, as if he were applauding his own show. Then he flies up again and hangs in the wind as the world goes silvery pink and gray.”
The book is also an exploration of the different techniques, technology, and the sheer creativity that owl researchers and conservationists use when studying the birds. From using recorded owl calls to draw out birds, to using sniffer dogs, to drone cameras that peep into nesting holes, the intersection of tech and the natural world is awe-inspiring.
Studying owls, however, is not an easy task. Not only are the birds active at night, but they also often inhabit rough terrain – high bluffs, deep old-growth forests and frozen landscapes. They are also masters of camouflage. Through many interesting anecdotes, Ackerman shares the hazards and lighter moments of being an owl explorer along with the joy and fulfilment it brings.
We are also introduced to famous personages who had owls as pets. From the rather sad story of Florence Nightingale’s pet owl to Pablo Picasso owlish muse, the owl has fascinated many with its grumpy personality. However, Ackerman iterates that owls do not make ideal pets and remain wild creatures. In fact, when a baby owl is rescued, rescuers take special care to ensure that the owlet doesn’t imprint on humans. Instead, they provide other owl adults and siblings to teach the owlet about being an owl. Papa G’ho, a Great Horned Owl who was injured in a car accident, is one such surrogate parent we meet in the book.
Ackerman also delves into the relationship between man and owl. Owls have captivated our imagination since pre-historic times, as evident in our oldest cave paintings at Chauvet. They have been revered and feared in equal measure by various cultures and civilizations over the world. Their soundless flight, large eyes, and their uncanny ability to camouflage themselves perhaps account for the mysticism and fear they inspire.
In this context, the most stirring anecdote in the book is about Kikinda – a remote Serbian town where droves of owls come to roost in winter. There have been as many as 145 Long-eared owls roosting in a single tree, and a total of 30,000 owls in the region’s villages in a season. However, Serbians believe that owls are harbingers of death, and the villagers would often harass and even shoot at the birds. Milan Ružić, a Serbian ornithologist, along with naturalist David Lindo, led a massive campaign to educate people. They showed them empirically that the owls had been hooting through the season and yet there had been hardly any deaths in the village during the period.
Talking about the positive change that their campaigns brought, Lindo says: “To see the attitude change like that over the past ten years—it’s one of the things I will take with me when I leave this planet”.
The book ends on a sober yet hopeful note. With rampant industrialization and deforestation, the biggest threat to owls is the loss of their natural habitat. Then there are risks such as rodent poisoning and climate change, among others. Given their elusive nature, it is difficult to implement protective programs for the birds. However there have been immense success stories in owl conservation. We have much to learn from owls. From helping decipher the use of REM sleep, to understanding how the human brain processes sound, insights into owls have helped lead scientists in the right direction.
As Ackerman puts it: “Owls have truths to tell us, from afar—from their perches and nests deep in old-growth forests, deserts, the Arctic—and from up close, in the hands of vets, rehabbers, researchers, and educators. We would be wise to listen.”
Yashodhara Sirur is a part-time writer, full-time IT professional based in Mumbai