Exploring The Enigmatic World Of Owls

A new book by Jennifer Ackerman explores the accomplished predator’s contradictions.

The following is an excerpt from What An Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. 

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Cover of "what an owl knows" by Jennifer Ackerman. A small owl stands on a branch, looking toward the reader.

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What An Owl Knows: The New Science of the World's Most Enigmatic Birds


Owls set my head a-whirr with questions. Why do they wield such a hold on the human imagination? They have a reputation for wisdom, but are they smart? Do they act by instinct alone, or are they curious and inventive? Do they have feelings and emotions? Why do an owl’s eyes, alone in the bird world, face the same way ours do? What made the early ancestors of owls cross the boundary into night? And why do some owls hunt during the day? Owls live all around the globe, but there are hot spots of owl diversity—in southeastern Arizona and western Mexico, southern Asia, southeastern Brazil. What draws so many species to these places? How are owls adapting to shifts in their habitat and global climate?

Throughout this book you’ll find discoveries that answer these questions and pose others. You’ll find the insights and observations of vets and educators familiar with the intimate lives and habits of owls, ethnoecologists exploring the deep hold of these birds on our psyche, and biologists and ecologists investigating their importance in the natural world and how we can best preserve them. You’ll also find portraits of people obsessed with owls, some famous—such as Florence Nightingale, Teddy Roosevelt, Pablo Picasso—and some not, like the librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who collects owl images from throughout history and wears a particularly beautiful one on her body. You’ll encounter citizen scientists who have boosted owl research, “ordinary” people not trained as researchers but contributing in brilliant ways to our knowledge of owls. One Dutch musician uses her finely tuned musical ear to listen for individuality, infidelity, and divorce among Eurasian Eagle Owls. 

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A heart surgeon turns his intense focus to the intimate conversation between pairs of Northern Pygmy Owls, what he calls “soft talk,” to understand their courtship and pairing. An emergency room nurse bands migrating NorthernSaw-whet Owls through the night, providing balm for the trauma of her job and hard data on the movements of these elusive little owls—once thought rare, now recognized as surprisingly common in large part because of volunteers like her.

And, of course, you’ll meet the scientists and researchers who have devoted their lives to understanding these birds. When I asked DavidJohnson, who has studied owls for well over forty years and directs the Global Owl Project, why he loves owls, he told me, “I didn’t choose them. They chose me.” Good thing they did. Johnson and his team of 450-plus researchers from around the world have been working together for the past two decades to conserve all the planet’s owl species.

But the real heroes of this book are the owls themselves. For millennia we have looked to these birds as messengers and signs. What are they telling us now?

“If anyone knows anything about anything,” says Winnie-the-Pooh, “it’s Owl who knows something about something.” Owls have truths to tell us, from afar—from their perches and nests deep in old-growth forests, deserts, the Arctic—and from up close, in the hands of vets, rehabbers, researchers, and educators. We would be wise to listen.

From What An Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds by Jennifer Ackerman*.

* Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Jennifer Ackerman, 2023.

Meet the Writer

About Jennifer Ackerman

Jennifer Ackerman is a science writer and author of several books, including What An Owl Knows and The Genius of Birds.

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