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Jennifer Ackerman

Review: What an Owl Knows by Jennifer Ackerman

There are 250 extant owl species known today though there is fossil evidence for a hundred species that have come and gone. Surprisingly, scientists keep finding new species and the number of species might yet continue to grow as we’re able to locate and identify owls in regions previously inaccessible to naturalists. Of course, some of the new species arise from examinations of variety in body morphology, vocalisation patterns, and DNA analyses that reveal differences between owl populations that were previously thought to be the same species. While as J. A. Baker rightly points out all birds can be described as predators, Ackerman is onto something when she resists the assimilation of the likes of “the cold-eyed thrush, that springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails” to the ranks of the owl: a “pure hunter, ruthless, [and] often gruesome in [its] eating habits” (17). An owl can take down mammals who are bigger, and heavier than themselves; thanks to their powerful legs, sharp talons, and their ability to swoop down in a way that generates force of up to double the body weight of its prey to crush them. The pennula, a fine layer of plush fibres coating owls’ feathers, muffle the sound of flight and gives them the advantage of stealth over their prey—though not every owl is a silent flyer. 

The Bird-brained Bird

Not only are owls expert hunters who’ll eat almost anything they can get away with they also cache surplus prey in secret larders—often leftovers after the female and young are full. Pygmy owls have been known to keep as many as a hundred small mammals in a single larder for the winter. In what seem like culinary habits that almost justify their sinister reputation in some cultures owls will eat other owls, and they will often immobilise but not kill their prey because the females and owlets like fresh food. But if that isn’t enough they’re also opportunistic scavengers. They’re furtive, fierce, capable, and scrappy. But are they, as the old saw has it, wise? On the measures of intelligence we understand and on which we rely when we say corvids and parrots are intelligent owls are not very bright. 

Experiments in which a bird has to figure out that pulling on a string brings a food reward in reach see crows and ravens succeed quickly. Great grey owls don’t seem to get it. But like a protective parent defending their ward Ackerman wards off worries about owls’ potential slowness by pointing to their large brain size relative to body weight and our still evolving understanding of owls’ different, more subtly intelligent behaviours. The research Ackerman cites though only shows owls might be playful and have long memories for faces, being able to recognise farmers and ornithologists they’ve been in proximity to and behaving differently around them (108). Of course, on at least one lay conception intelligence and wisdom are different, potentially complementary but independent virtues. So, owls might yet be wise while not being quite as intelligent.

Flying in the Dark

Hegel famously used the owl as a metaphor for human understanding which only seems to come when it is too late. Our understanding of the ways of owls has been latecoming but as Ackerman points out enthusiastically it is still early days. New technologies are allowing us to see not only the species level diversity within the order of Strigiformes but also individual diversity in a given population of owls. One needn’t be a birder to appreciate bird song or learn startling facts about charismatic birds like owls, and yet the sort of sustained owl facts litany intoned in this book might not be to everyone’s fancy. But everyone can get behind research that improves human and animal flourishing.

Just one way owl research has already benefited humans is by the incidental devising of a test of hearing for infants suspected to have an impairment based on the finding that owls’ pupils dilate when they hear an “oddball noise” (23). We do understand that the threats owls face are the same as those faced by other charismatic fauna: habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. These are issues with existential and quality-of-life- impacting ramifications for the human world writ large, birders and the bird-indifferent alike. Irrespective of our interest in owls or literary non-fiction about owls, egging on those who are already at work uncovering their secrets is in humanity’s best interests. 

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