Outstanding Owls

January 14, 2024

A review by Rebecca Heisman

What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman

Penguin Press, 2023

352 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15349

Owl fans, rejoice: Jennifer Ackerman’s latest book, What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds, is the ultimate guide to all things feathered and nocturnal. This popular science book sets out to introduce non-ornithologists to the latest scientific research on these beloved birds, delving deep into the lives and mysteries of owls, and it delivers.

What an Owl Knows is a wide-ranging book that divides aspects of owls’ lives and our relationship with them into distinct areas, each covered in a separate chapter, while pulling in examples from a range of owl species around the world. Ackerman discusses owls’ vocalizations, courtship rituals, migratory habits, intelligence, and adaptations for hunting at night. Moving away from pure biology, she also digs into the challenges involved in studying owls, what we’ve learned from relationships between humans and individual captive owls, and varying cultural attitudes toward owls. Black-and-white photos peppered throughout the text provide helpful glimpses of many of the species and behaviors she describes.

Surprising and enthralling stories can be found on every page of What an Owl Knows. Readers will meet Max, a dog trained to sniff out elusive Spotted Owls in the Pacific Northwest; visit Kikinda, a village in Serbia where human-habituated Long-eared Owls roost by the hundreds in the town square; and cheer on Papa G’Ho, a captive Great Horned Owl who acts as a surrogate father to orphaned fledglings. One of the most interesting sections of the book may be the one that covers the wandering habits of Snowy Owls, once thought to comprise completely separate breeding populations in Eurasia and North America. Satellite transmitters revealed to astonished researchers that breeding pairs of Snowy Owls can shift their locations radically between years, nesting in Siberia one season and Greenland the next as they follow booming lemming populations. How exactly they find promising sites spread over such vast areas remains a mystery.

Those who enjoyed Ackerman’s previous books on bird behavior and intelligence, The Genius of Birds and The Bird Way, will be pleased to find that Ackerman’s writing is just as engaging and enthusiastic as ever; her genuine affection for her subjects infuses her descriptions of scientific studies of owls and the researchers who’ve carried them out. Many owl enthusiasts also likely tore through Jonathan Slaght’s Owls of the Eastern Ice a few years ago, and they’ll be delighted to see Slaght and his memorable Russian colleagues pop up again here. True owl buffs may even recognize names such as Jim Duncan and Denver Holt, longtime owl researchers and conservationists whose expertise Ackerman mines repeatedly over the course of the book.

Ackerman concludes with a chapter on owls’ prospects in our rapidly changing world and the work being done around the globe to promote and protect them, from festivals in Italy to pro-owl bumper stickers in South America. As she notes, owls are the least-studied and least-understood group of raptors: “The discoveries by owl researchers deepen our understanding and our awe,” she writes, “but there’s still so much we don’t know.” What an Owl Knows is an ideal introduction to these enigmatic and fascinating birds, sure to convert a whole new generation of owl lovers.

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Rebecca Heisman is a freelance science writer based in Walla Walla, Washington. Her first book, Flight Paths (HarperCollins), explores the history and science of bird migration research. She has written previously for various professional ornithological organizations. Find her online at rebeccaheisman.com.