An instant New York Times bestseller!
A New York Times Notable Book of 2023
Named a Best Book of 2023 by Publishers Weekly
From the author of The Genius of Birds and The Bird Way, a brilliant scientific investigation into owls—the most elusive of birds—and why they exert such a hold on human imagination
For millennia, owls have captivated and intrigued us. Our fascination with these mysterious birds was first documented more than thirty thousand years ago in the Chauvet Cave paintings in southern France. With their forward gaze and quiet flight, owls are often a symbol of wisdom, knowledge, and foresight. But what does an owl really know? And what do we really know about owls? Though our fascination goes back centuries, scientists have only recently begun to understand in deep detail the complex nature of these extraordinary birds. Some two hundred sixty species of owls exist today, and they reside on every continent except Antarctica, but they are far more difficult to find and study than other birds because they are cryptic, camouflaged, and mostly active in the dark of night.
Jennifer Ackerman illuminates the rich biology and natural history of these birds and reveals remarkable new scientific discoveries about their brains and behavior. She joins scientists in the field and explores how researchers are using modern technology and tools to learn how owls communicate, hunt, court, mate, raise their young, and move about from season to season. We now know that the hoots, squawks, and chitters of owls follow sophisticated and complex rules, allowing them to express not just their needs and desires but their individuality and identity. Owls duet. They migrate. They hoard their prey. Some live in underground burrows; some roost in large groups; some dine on black widows and scorpions.
Ackerman brings this research alive with her own personal field observations about owls and dives deep into why these birds beguile us. What an Owl Knows is an awe-inspiring exploration of owls across the globe and through human history, and a spellbinding account of their astonishing hunting skills, communication, and sensory prowess. By providing extraordinary new insights into the science of owls, What an Owl Knows pulls back the curtain on the nature of the world’s most enigmatic group of birds.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
The best thing that this revelatory book explains to us about owls is that they’re a lot like us. Science journalist Jennifer Ackerman shows that owls are capable of surprising selflessness as well as total brutality—they’re playful, lusty, or fierce depending on the situation. Sharing other researchers’ work alongside her own, Ackerman reveals the captivating details of owls’ everyday habits, from hunting to how they court and breed. We were especially fascinated by the parts about owls’ language and the shockingly sophisticated ways they process information, and the anecdotes about how these night birds have impacted human history. Ackerman makes all this information so accessible and engaging that it feels like going on safari rather than sitting through a lesson.
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.