Looking for a good read? Here is a recommendation. I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review. You do not have to agree with everything every author has written (I do not), but the fiction I review is entertaining (and often thought-provoking) and the non-fiction contain ideas worth reading.
Reviewed by Mark Lardas
June 4, 2023
“What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman, Penguin Press, 2023, 352 pages, $30.00 (Hardcover), $15.99 (ebook), $27.56 (Audiobook)
Owls hold our imagination. They are mysterious. They appear wise. They appear frequently in literature and myth. They are symbols both impending victory and impending death. What are they really like, though?
“What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman, explores the world of owls. She looks at owls from multiple perspectives: the physiology of owls, their environment and how they live in it, how they interact with humans and how humans interact with owls, and what the future holds.
The opening chapters examine those abilities. They examine owls’ remarkable vision and hearing. Their night vision is remarkable. They are one of the few birds with binocular vision and depth perception. Even more remarkable is their hearing. Ackerman reveals that owls can track prey under snow or leaves using hearing alone.
The book also shows why owls can do this. An owl’s facial feathers serve as a sound collector. They are also the key to owls’ silent flight. Bristles on feathers’ leading edge serve as sound baffles. These are only a few of the fascinating facts contained in this book.
The book then turns to how owls live: where they nest, what they hunt (measured by weight, owls are among the deadliest killing machines in nature) how they mate and bring up their young. Ackerman reveals how they defend their turf from rival – or run if they are outmatched.
As Ackerman shows, over the last twenty-five years science has learned a lot about owls. Technology, such as trail cameras and miniature electronics, allow zoologists to uncover the secret lives of owl. They can follow them into their nests, track their migrations, and examine their abilities. She spends time with researchers, amateur and professional, showing how they conduct their research.
There are also chapters showing how owls and people coexist. Owls face prejudice in some human societies, but they are also farmers’ friends, serving as rodent and bird control. There is also a chapter on owls in myth and literature. This includes the impact of the Harry Potter series on owl collecting. Another chapter covers how to observe owls and another examines owl conservation.
“What an Owl Knows” is a delightful book. It reveals unexpected aspects of owls. What we can learn about them, what we can learn from them. It explains why humans have been fascinated by owls from prehistory to the present.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.