JENNIFER ACKERMAN What an Owl Knows. Reviewed by Ann Skea
Jennifer Ackerman provides insights into owl-human relations and what we know about these storied birds.
The wise old owl lived in the oak
The more he saw the less he spoke,
The less he spoke the more he heard,
Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?
How wise is an owl? Does it live in oak trees? What can it see; how much can it hear; and how does it speak?
Jennifer Ackerman does not mention this old rhyme but she has travelled the world talking to owl experts, scientists, ecologists, wildlife groups, conservationists and ‘citizen-scientists’ in an attempt to answer all these questions. In What an Owl Knows, she reports on the latest owl studies, joins owl-hunters and owl-rescuers, and looks at the way humans have responded to owls over the centuries.
The subtitle of this book, The new science of the world’s most enigmatic birds, suggests the book’s focus on science and research, and owl lovers may be put off by a scientific approach and may, for example, not want to know some of the gruesome details of an owl’s feeding habits:
It’s the job of a male Burrowing Owl to deliver food to the burrow to feed the female. She likes fresh food, so the male doesn’t kill the insects, just disables them. …. [As one researcher remarks] ‘The male goes off, catches something, cripples it, brings it back, drops it off, and then goes and gets another one. That’s impressive.’
Much of the book, however, is less ugly and makes absorbing reading. It explores the number of owl species (260 and growing); the range of places where owls live and what their living quarters are like; their superb ‘superpower’ vision and hearing; their hunting skills and prey; their interaction with humans; and their adaptability.
Owls, of course, are predators, and the size of their prey is sometimes amazing, but they are also caring parents. Marjory Savelsberg, who works with a team of scientists in the Loire Valley, had her career in classical music cut short by a disease of her heart muscles, but she uses her musical skills to analyse the vocalisations of a small population of Eurasian Eagle Owls. Her musical ear finds their individual calls distinctive and she can track and record their territories, their pairings and the size of the population.
Her first handling of one of the chicks made her think of ‘these big mothers, weighing two, three, four kilograms, caring for these tiny little chicks weighing fifty grams. The tenderness they have is wonderful, yet with those same feet they kill rabbits without hesitation.’ She has also seen a pair adopt a six-month old owlet unrelated to them.
The hunting skills of owls are remarkable. Their forward-facing eyes, specially adapted for night vision, plus their asymmetrical ear clefts and the way the corona of feathers frames their faces and directs sound to the ears like a satellite dish, all help them to pinpoint prey. A Great Grey Owl can hear voles moving up to a foot-and-a-half deep beneath the snow, and to avoid the light distortion which snow (like water) causes, they ‘hover for up to ten seconds directly above the prey before plunging straight down’. Their speed and weight allow them to penetrate the snow and capture the animal.
Ackerman records a lot of scientific research in detail, especially related to the owls’ sight and hearing, but she is also interested in the way owls ‘speak’ to each other, their nesting habits, and the way they deal with human disturbance of their habitats. Finding owls in order to study them, however, is an art and skill of its own, since they are masters of camouflage. Humans use all kinds of strategies to achieve this, but time and patience are clearly the most important attributes of an owl researcher. So, too, according to the ‘staff job description’ at the Minnesota Owl Center, is the ability to hoot like an owl. Owl whitewash (faeces deposits) and regurgitated owl pellets may show that owls are present, but they can still be impossible to see.
Burrowing Owls, which ornament their nest-sites with elaborate ‘decorations’, are easy to find, but difficult to catch for banding. Traps, nets and ‘solar powered grasshoppers or cockroaches’ that wriggle and buzz don’t work in the dark; dead mice and ‘mouse sound’ may help, but canny older birds know to avoid them. As one researcher puts it:
The old-timers, the really good hunters, would fly over my bow net and say, ‘Thanks David, but I can do better myself. I can catch kangaroo rats. I don’t want to fuss with your little mouse. I know it’s a game and I’m not playing.’
In spite of extensive research, Ackerman notes that ‘most of what we know about the psychology of owls, their complicated motivation and nuances of behaviour, we’ve learned from captive owls’. Captive owls, however, if they become imprinted on humans, can’t be returned to the wild and their behaviour may be atypical. In spite of this, some captive owls have been valuable to research. Papa G’Ho, a Great Horned Owl at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, was admitted with wing damage that could not be repaired. His job now is to act as surrogate parent and to teach young owls ‘essential owl behaviour’, such as wariness of humans, self-defence and how to ‘socialize with one another’. Young owls leave Papa G’Ho’s care ready to attend ‘flight conditioning and mouse school’, and
… so impressive is his fathering that one year he won the coveted Coolest Dad award from Virginia Living magazine along with a human father. The human dad won a T-shirt, Papa G’Ho won ten dollars’ worth of mice.
In spite of the scientific approach of most owl research, anthropomorphism is frequent. Most examples of anthropomorphism in this book are the researchers’ humorous interpretations of owl behaviour, but the practice of giving human names to individual owls is common. At its worst, anthropomorphism attributes mathematical skills to the owl’s brain, describing it as using ‘math to pinpoint its prey’, and as doing ‘advanced math’ using a statistical method called ‘Bayesian inference’. This equates inherent skills with conscious calculation.
But are owls wise? There is no consensus about this. The problem is to find a ‘fair test’.
Owls may not be smart in the ways crows are smart, in the ways we are smart, devising technical solutions to physical problems or comprehending the physics of underlying objects, but this may only point to the limitations of our own definitions and measures of intelligence.
Owls, however, have remarkable behaviour, hunting skills, sensory powers and a hint of magic, which this book sets out to reveal.
Humans seem always to have regarded owls as special. In some societies they are seen as bringing good luck: in others they are creatures of evil omen. In a chapter headed ‘Half Bird, Half Spirit’, Ackerman writes of famous owl owners like Florence Nightingale, Teddy Roosevelt and Pablo Picasso, and of the vast centuries-spanning iconography of owls in myth, art and language. Owls, says Ackerman, have truths to tell us and ‘we would be wise to listen’.
What an Owl Knows is replete with photographs of owls, which range from pictures of owlets and of the charming little Elf Owl to some fierce and slightly comic photographic portraits of a Spectacled Owl, a Flammulated Owl, a Mexican Spotted Owl and a challenging Eurasian Eagle Owl.
Ackerman’s final chapter deals with the ways in which owls are vulnerable to extinction in the face of changes brought about by climate change, invasive species, the use of pesticides, and loss of habitat. She writes that ‘we are part of the problem’, so, ‘what can an individual do?’ Getting to know all you can about owls is fundamental to their conservation, and this book makes a valuable and heartfelt contribution to this.
Jennifer Ackerman What an Owl Knows Scribe 2023 PB 368pp $35.00
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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