On finishing this very readable book I can honestly say that I now know a great deal more about owls than when I began it. That wasn’t hard: my main understanding of owls had come from Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter (I’m exaggerating, of course – but only a bit.)
The book is packed with surprising facts about owls, covering topics such as how owls are made (the mating and rearing practices of different species), the bewildering range of kinds of owls and their habitats (at least 260 species and counting), the way their keen sight, acute hearing, impressive camouflage and almost silent flight, all assist in their hunting of prey and their survival.
I found myself trying to follow the instructions about how to imitate the call of a flammulated owl, being simultaneously glad I was alone at the time and amazed that I now knew there was such a thing as a flammulated owl.
The scientific information is pretty fascinating, but what engrossed me was how the author canvassed the ways in which owls have been regarded by humans over centuries and across civilisations. It seems that owls have been associated with wisdom, witchcraft, good and bad luck, prophesy and mythology.
Human connection with owls often has negative consequences, some deliberate, many unintended.
Some cultural traditions, for example, hold that owls must be killed. because they bring misfortune. Throwing an apple core out of your car window can entice small birds or rodents to nibble on it, later attracting an owl which can then end up dead from flying into a moving vehicle. Using poison to kill pests such as rate or mice can also result in poisoned owls when they hunt and eat the rodents.
Hedwig, the owl in the Harry Potter books and movies, resulted in a craze for owls as pets, with the predictable result of abandoned owls when the humans realised that their new ‘pet’ is a wild creature, difficult to keep in a domestic setting. Far from being ‘bird brains’, it is entirely possible that owls possess levels of intelligence we can only guess at, and they do not belong in a cage.
On a more positive note, I learnt that there are people all across the world, professional scientists and ordinary citizens, who are doing what they can to learn about owls, educate others about them, and preserve their habitats.
I thoroughly enjoyed my little journey of learning about these mysterious birds. Here is what the author had to say about an encounter she had with a female Long-eared Owl being studied by an owl expert:
For me, it was an adventure, bright, intense, deeply affecting. That owl had seemed like a messenger from another time and place, like starlight. Being near her somehow made me feel smaller in my body and bigger in my soul. I asked Holt why he has devoted the better part of his life to studying these elusive creatures. Because of this, he said, gesturing at her empty path. Because they’re so beautifully adapted to their world, so quiet, invisible, cryptic not just in coloring but in sound, deft in the dark, superb hunters – traits that have evolved over millions of years. “And,” he said, “because they’re still so full of surprises.”
What an Owl Knows p11
What an Owl Knows is published by Scribe in July 2023. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.