In her latest work, What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds, Jennifer Ackerman strides into the arcane realm of owls, those sphinx-like avian riddles of the night. With a pedigree burnished by her 2016 bestseller, “The Genius of Birds,” Ackerman is no greenhorn in the art of avian excavation, unfurling the plumage of these elusive nocturnal dwellers with alacrity and precision.
Employing a battery of cutting-edge gadgets and novel methodologies, Ackerman, with the elegance of a seasoned ornithologist and the passion of a die-hard owl enthusiast, drags the enigma of owls into the harsh light of scientific scrutiny. She lays out a rich tapestry of owl lore — from their biology, the nocturnal linguistics of hoots and chitters, to the owl’s intricate mating minuet and the great migrations of the winged voyagers.
Her prose brims with a glut of owl trivia: their capacity for voice recognition, their near-infrared visual spectrum, and their startling mathematical acuity in prey detection. She parades an array of owlkind, from the elfin elf owl to the formidable Eurasian eagle owl, showcasing the staggering biodiversity within this avian family.
Among the owlish academic glitterati she introduces are Masakazu Konishi and David Johnson, whose explorations into the surprisingly Machiavellian social dynamics of owl society are nothing short of riveting. They serve up a feast of scientific revelation, laying bare cannibalistic tendencies and altruistic food-sharing among the owl younglings.
More than an ornithological tour de force, Ackerman’s tome delves into the very human cultural matrices that owls inhabit. Drawing from the wellspring of folklore and art, she traces the evolution of owl symbolism, from wisdom to malevolence, noting the peculiar magnetism of their human-esque gaze that ensnares our collective imagination.
Still, Ackerman acknowledges the vast gulf of the unknown that lies between human comprehension and the lived reality of owls. Despite her painstaking efforts, the owl, like all birds, holds its secrets close under its feathered cloak. As What an Owl Knows concludes, the allure of the owl lies not just in the knowledge we glean but in the tantalizing secrets they still guard, cementing our eternal fascination with these mysterious denizens of the night.