cover image What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds

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

Jennifer Ackerman. Penguin Press, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-29888-6

In this masterful survey, nature writer Ackerman (The Bird Way) explores the physiology and behavior of owls. She provides an overview of owls’ intelligence, evolution, mating strategies, nest-building abilities, and communication skills, relating how variations in owl calls allow the birds to express “their needs and desires” and convey “highly specific information about their individual identity, and their sex, size, weight, and state of mind.” Describing academic studies that illuminate the surprising social complexity of the nocturnal predators, Ackerman writes that nestling barn owls will altruistically share food with weaker siblings, and that screech owls sometimes engage in cannibalism, killing and eating fellow fledglings. The author highlights the heterogeneity of owl species, noting that they’re found on every continent but Antarctica and that while the Eurasian eagle owl is big enough to prey on baby deer, the tiny elf owl is only “about the size of a small pine cone.” There’s fascinating trivia on every page (owls perform “sophisticated mathematical computations” to pinpoint prey by sound, and some owl attacks on humans may be attempts to play), making for a revelatory glimpse into the lives of the “enigmatic” raptors. Bird lovers will be enthralled. Photos. (June)