What An Owl Knows by Jennifer Ackerman [7/10]

Jennifer Ackerman is a global treasure, a science writer who has most recently focused on the glory of birds as revealed by the latest scientific findings. The Bird Way (in 2020) and The Genius of Birds (in 2016) were thoroughly enjoyable and dizzyingly revelatory. Now she has turned her wise gaze onto owls, the most enigmatic, mysterious, and unknown (in any real sense) of all birds. “What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds,” surveying the 270 owl species. As a mediocre birder, I know how elusive, in a practical sense, they are; I don’t like to venture out at night in pursuit of my hobby, and the few times I have, they have, of course, proven to be hard to see. They possess special feathers that enable them to fly far more silently than other birds, and they’re superbly camouflaged, and they keep out of the way. They’re prodigious hunters. Ackerman documents how varied the various species are, and how wondrous their eyes (the only front-facing eyes among birds) and their ears are. She captures the endless passions of a new generation of scientists finally unraveling how they hunt, how they travel, what their hugely sophisticated calls and cries mean. She documents their place in human cultures throughout history. Above all, she glories in their hitherto unknown intelligence and marvels at how well adapted they are. I fully realize What An Owl Knows might only elicit interest from a limited audience but to anyone scientifically inclined, this is a mind-expanding read that reads like a dream.

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