Great Natural History
|What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World's Most Enigmatic Birds|
by Jennifer Ackerman. Published June 13, 2023.
Do you love owls? I love them! What an Owl Knows is a wonderful way to learn more about this beautiful family of birds that live on every continent except Antarctica, The book surveys recent field work on the anatomy, the hunting skills, the breeding habits, and the life cycles of many species of owls. It surveys efforts to rescue endangered owl species from the effects of human activities, especially the effects of logging and of expanding agriculture, which threaten the habitats they need. It also discusses human reactions to owls: superstitions, folk beliefs, inspiration of artists, and many other ways that owls affect humans. Owls have many meanings in cultures around the world: "they're creators, healers, guides, and guardians, as well as fearful, devilish presences, harbingers of doom and death." (What an Owl Knows, p. 236).
Some things I learned
|Picasso had a pet owl, which was probably very unhappy. (source)|
- I didn't know that Picasso kept a pet owl named Ubu, which inspired him to create many owl images, though Ubu's life story is a bit sad, as is that of many captive owls.
- I didn't know that the characteristic round face that makes owls so distinctive was a highly effective collector of sound waves, and thus helped the owl to locate the sounds made by small prey animals in the dark or under the snow. Or that the owl's huge eyes are the only birds' eyes that point forward and see depth the same way that human eyes do.
- I didn't know that large numbers of owls roosted in the town square in one particular Serbian town, though most owls avoid humans and are masters of camouflage.
- I didn't know that to make a nest, most owl species look for cavities or tree hollows that have already been created by other animals, such as woodpeckers or burrowing rodents. Finding such a ready place is hard: this is why owls are so easily endangered by logging or other human development in their habitat. Nest boxes placed by humans appeal to other types of birds, but very rarely to owls.
- I didn't know that one species of baby owl that lives in a nest on the ground can frighten off predators by convincingly making the sound of a rattle snake. In general, I discovered that the many nesting choices and protective habits for raising baby owls is amazing.
How to be an Owl ParentMost owl pairs cooperate to care for their chicks. The female stays on the nest, while the male hunts and brings food to her and the chicks. Both parents lose weight while dedicating most of the available food to their offspring. More about raising little owls:
"In many ways, owls appear to be especially dedicated parents. While a female incubates, she sits on the nest for nearly twenty-four hours a day, with her head low and stomach down, keeping the eggs at the right temperature, cool in the heat, warm through snow and cold. A brooding Snowy Owl must hold the eggs at close to 98 degrees Faahrenheit, even when the temperature plummets to -30 degrees or -40 degrees. A Great Gray Owl nesting in the sun, on the other hand may get very hot herself but will sit tight to keep her eggs and chicks from overheating... I've seen a male Great Horned Owl spread his wings over the female and chicks to shield them from the pouring rain, drenching his own feathers in the process." (p. 149-150)
Owls, Birders, and Scientists
|A tiny Elf Owl that we saw in Arizona in 2021. Seeing an owl is usually the highlight of a day birding!|
The mountains near the Mexican border are especially good for owls.
What an Owl Knows tells the stories of a number of recent owl researchers, including how they came to love owls and want to work on understanding them, and how the often came to know and observe specific, individual owls that live in captivity, as well as doing amazing work in the field, such as climbing tall trees to see owl nests. The researchers are very dedicated and resourceful people, and the details about them contribute to the very enjoyable experience of reading the book.
Owls are very intelligent, and don't like captivity or too many demands from humans. Usually, captive owls studied by the researchers were victims of some accident that made them unable to live in the wild or to be rehabilitated and re-wilded. In the US, owls are not allowed as pets, but must be in an approved situation. In other countries owls are captured and sold, and the result is sad for them.
The intelligence of owls is one of the major themes of the book. Their mental acuity results from the many adaptations that the owl family had undergone in its millions of years of evolution -- another interesting topic that the author covers. For one example, I was fascinated by the chapter on how owls raise their chicks, which differs a bit among owl species but is very interesting in all that were explained.
|The illustrations in What the Owl Knows are wonderful. |
I was fascinated by this one showing a captive Great Horned Owl known as Papa G'Ho.
In the book, the reproductions are in black & white, but I found this color reproduction online. (source)
Coming soon: I'm working on a blog post about owls in art works throughout the ages, based on the references in What an Owl Knows. And now for a completely different book!
Venice in a Mystery
Here's a complete contrast to a serious though readable book of natural history:
Donna Leon’s police procedural Falling in Love (published 2015) is more of a psychological thriller than a more usual detective story. It’s quite suspenseful, but I won't give away any of the plot. I found many of the features that one expects to find in the series about Inspector Brunetti in Venice, which now includes over 30 novels, about which I have often written.
In the police department, the bosses are obnoxious as always. The larger-than-life secretary, the beautiful and gorgeously dressed Signorina Elettra, constantly acquires more and more devious ways to find information. She can ferret out any detail about powerful executives and officials, anything about people's public and private lives and family dramas, hidden evidence of past crimes, contents of secret government documents, incriminating facts from police records, suggestive transactions in confidential bank documents — whatever Brunetti and his colleagues need for their investigations.
Brunetti’s children are permanent adolescents, as they have been since the first books in the 1990s. And Brunetti adores his wife Paola, a literature professor. As always, she is very literary, always reading:
‘Am I taking you away from anything important?’ he asked with a glance at the book she had abandoned.
‘Truth, beauty, elegant prose, lacerating psychological penetration, thrilling dialog,’ she listed.
‘Just can’t stay away from Agatha Christie, can you?’ Brunetti said. (p. 94)
Also memorable and famous in the Brunetti books are the beautiful lunches and dinners that Paola cooks, or that are served at Paola’s very rich and aristocratic parents’ house. There aren’t many such meals in Falling in Love, but those that appear are very appealing. A lunch:
“The family chattered around him quite happily, distracted from his silence first by lentils with hot salami and candied currants, and then by veal roll filled with sweet sausage. Even though Brunetti especially loved the lentils, he did little more than tell Paola they were wonderful before lapsing back into consideration of [the case]…. He ate his crème caramel and for once did not ask for more.” (p. 172)
In sum, it’s a satisfying read, perhaps one of the better examples in the series, of which I’ve read quite a few but not all of them.
Reviews © 2023 mae sander