July 2023

Jennifer Ackerman brings owls into the light

The bestselling author of bird books turns her attention to one of the most alluring avians in What an Owl Knows.
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Jennifer Ackerman knows birds. In fact, the award-winning science writer and bestselling author has written three books about them (The Genius of Birds, Birds by the Shore and The Bird Way). Now, with What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds, she shines a light on “the most distinctive order of birds in the world.” We asked Ackerman about her research, including her travels far and wide to meet with scientists, researchers and countless volunteers dedicated to observing and understanding these enigmatic creatures—and figuring out how we can help save them.

What an absolutely fascinating book you’ve written! What do you think is the quality that makes humans most intrigued by owls—their wide-eyed cuteness, their perceived wisdom, their air of mystery?
I would say all of the above! Owls have enchanted humans for tens of thousands of years. We see ourselves in them, with their huge heads and big forward-facing eyes (and yes, their cute faces). And yet they’re also so very different from us—strange, mysterious denizens of the dark, capable of flying silently and navigating the night, with sensory powers beyond our own that allow them to hunt in the pitch black. So it’s the whole package of mystery, cuteness, extraordinary skills and intelligence that inspires awe and wonder.

Your earlier books (e.g., Chance in the House of Fate, Ah-Choo! and Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream) were about humans. In your more recent books, you’ve turned to birds. What prompted that transition from writing about people to writing about our feathered friends?
I’ve loved birds since I was a child. My first book, Birds by the Shore, explored the nature of the mid-Atlantic coast, including ospreys and shorebirds. I took a detour into human biology because I was fascinated by the riddle of humanity’s place in the natural world. Chance in the House of Fate is about the genetic similarities between humans and other organisms, the long thread of DNA that connects us with all living things.

But in 2013, my husband was diagnosed with cancer, and I decided to turn my attention back to nature and to my first love: birds. I’m an avid reader of scientific journals, and I noticed an abundance of new research about the shifting view of bird brains and bird behavior. I got interested in what makes birds tick. How do they communicate? Why do they sing so gloriously? And how do they learn their songs? What’s going on in their minds while they forage, build nests, raise their young? How do they make decisions and solve problems? This launched me into The Genius of Birds and The Bird Way, and from there to owls.

Read our starred review of ‘What an Owl Knows’ by Jennifer Ackerman.

More than one of the researchers and scientists you introduce in What an Owl Knows spoke of a pivotal moment in childhood when they knew they were meant to work with owls. Did you have a similar early-in-life feeling of certainty about working with birds?
Those stories of pivotal moments really resonated with me. When I was 7 or 8, I started bird-watching with my dad along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Washington, D.C. My dad had been a bird-watcher himself since childhood, when he learned about birds and birdsong as a Boy Scout. He was a busy guy (with five daughters!) when I was young, but he loved to get out on weekends and look for warblers and thrushes. Bird-watching was a good way to get some time alone with him. We would rise before dawn, head down to the canal and the woods along the Potomac River, and listen in the dark for birdsong. My dad gave me my first pair of binoculars and my first bird field guide. From then on, I was hooked.

In your afterword, you note that you decided to write this book during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What about that time do you think drove you to immerse yourself in the world of owls? Did you get to know any owls near your home during lockdown?
So many of us turned to birds during the pandemic. I think we needed to feel connected with other creatures, and the birds were right there in our backyards. A friend of mine had a barred owl family living in the woods behind her, and we would take walks looking for the nest. That was how we spent time together. We heard the owls but never actually saw them. On the river near where I live, I did get to see a great horned owl, but only once. These birds are just so elusive and difficult to spot!

In deciding what birds to write about next, I realized I wanted to focus on a single family or order, one that would point to the incredible variety of birds even within a single group. Owls vary dramatically from species to species and even from individual to individual within a species, so they seemed like a great choice. I wanted to learn more about the idiosyncrasies of different species and what had been discovered about their evolution, adaptations and individual natures.

“It’s the whole package of mystery, cuteness, extraordinary skills and intelligence that inspires awe and wonder.”

Readers will likely be surprised to learn that when owls, say, swat at nighttime joggers, they might just be trying to play—not attacking. What does owls’ penchant for purely fun activities tell us about them?
The playfulness of owls signals several illuminating things about them: first, that they feel safe enough—and well fed enough—to engage in activities that take energy and may make them vulnerable. It also points to their intelligence. Birds that play (mostly parrots, corvids and owls) tend to be species with relatively bigger brains. Scientists suspect that play depends on cognition. So owls may play because they’re smart but also because it’s fun and rewarding. In most animals, play triggers the release of dopamine, which is active in the reward system of the brain, as well as endogenous opioids, which are essential for sensations of pleasure. In other words, owls may play not just to practice life skills but because it floods their brains with feel-good chemicals.

You learned that the availability of owl-centric merchandise is a good way of discerning whether owls are viewed favorably or negatively in a particular location or moment in time. Do you have any favorite owl items that you wear, use or display?
I admit that my house, my yard and my wardrobe are full of owly objects: owl photos and sculptures and ceramic pots, owl pins and earrings and necklaces, owl T-shirts and owl socks. But my favorite owly object is a piece of folk art I found in a little cafe in Iguaçu, Brazil. It’s a comical little owl bell crafted from metal with big, bright eyes and wings made of pale yellow citrine stones.

This is probably an impossible question to answer, but: You traveled to so many wonderful places to meet with scientists and observe myriad owls in the wild. Which ones—the places and the owls—were your favorite, the ones you hope to get back to as soon as you can?
That is a hard question. I’d like to get back to the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, which harbors nearly as much biological diversity as the Amazon. Given the chance, I’d return to Montana in a heartbeat to spend more time with great gray owls, one of my two favorite species. (The other is burrowing owls, which are so comical, idiosyncratic and full of character and live all over the Americas.) I’d also love to go to the Sky Islands of southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico, a place I’ve never been, to see all the little forest owls there, such as the flammulated, elf and whiskered screech owls.

“I like to imagine that I’m writing a letter to an interested friend, and that helps me sort out what’s essential and interesting and what I can leave on the cutting room floor.”

Have you developed any routines over the course of your writing career that help you balance your time in the field with reading, researching, editing, etc.? How did you decide what to keep in What an Owl Knows and what to leave out?
I usually spend a year or two reading, researching, interviewing and doing fieldwork for my books. My favorite part of the process is being out in the field at research sites, traipsing around with scientists obsessed with their species and eager to share their vast knowledge and let me observe their fieldwork. They’re all unfailingly generous with their time, and I depend on their expertise. Then it’s another year or two of writing and editing, draft after draft after draft. Sometimes the amount of material I gather is overwhelming and chapters balloon. But the editing of the extraneous, the sculpting and crafting of narrative, is a joyful experience. I like to imagine that I’m writing a letter to an interested friend, and that helps me sort out what’s essential and interesting and what I can leave on the cutting room floor.

You asked many owl experts what individuals can do when it comes to advocating for and helping to preserve owl populations and habitats. What are a few things that readers can do right now to get started?
Most importantly, do whatever you can to help preserve owl habitat. If you own any piece of land, however large or small, think about the owls that might be living there and what they need. Don’t mow your lawn if you can avoid it. (Or better yet, do away with your lawn altogether and plant native grasses.) This will draw in more prey for owls. Leave dead trees and snags standing if they don’t pose a danger. If you own a large piece of land, consider a conservation easement to protect it after you’re gone. And finally, support organizations and legislation that promote habitat conservation.

Among the other immediate actions readers can take:

  • Keep cats indoors. (Cats kill owls and compete for their prey.)
  • Protect owls from accidents by not throwing apple cores and other garbage into roadside ditches, covering your chimney with a mesh lid, taking down soccer nets when they’re not in use, limiting your Halloween fake cobwebs to indoors and removing any unused barbed wire from your property.
  • Don’t use rodenticides to control rodents; use traps instead.
  • Use 100% recycled paper to help reduce the loss of trees.
  • Support owl research, education and rehabilitation centers.

“Owls are even stranger, more intriguing, more powerful and more appealing than I imagined.”

Owls are beautiful, majestic and adorable—as can be seen in every wonderful photo in your book—so it’s not surprising that people wish to have them as pets. It is, however, a terrible idea. Will you give readers a sum-up as to why?
Yes, a terrible idea. For one thing, in most countries, including the U.S., it’s illegal to keep owls without a special permit and licensing. Moreover, owls are high maintenance and hard to care for. They eat rodents or other animals that must be fresh, and their droppings are stinky and messy. Their talons are sharp and can damage furniture, shred blankets and pillows and puncture skin. In the breeding season, they hoot all night long, which makes for patchy sleep. They can live for up to 30 years, so it’s a massive commitment, a way of life. But most important in my mind: Owls are wild birds, and they’re meant to live life in the wild. As one licensed owl care provider told me, “In cages they simply cannot do all the things their bodies were designed for, and their spirits require.”

When you think about your time among the owls, what made the biggest impression on you? What are you most hoping readers take away from What an Owl Knows?
Exploring owls for this book just blew away all my assumptions about these birds. Owls are even stranger, more intriguing, more powerful and more appealing than I imagined. They’ve also changed the way I experience the world. Owls see what we don’t see. They hear what we don’t hear. So they invite you to notice things that you might otherwise miss. Also, they’re so quiet and subtle, so well camouflaged, and they point to the value of not standing out in the world but fitting into it.

But I think what impressed me most is how complex these magnificent birds are, how highly skilled, distinctive and idiosyncratic, with unique voices and personalities all their own, and with a full range of feelings and emotions. I hope readers will come away from the book with the same new thrill, wonder and awe, and with a new appreciation for how critical owls are to the well-being of the planet.

What’s next for you? Is there anything you want to share, owly or otherwise?
This summer, I’m going on the road to share a presentation about owls and what I learned writing this book. Like the book, the presentation is illustrated with gorgeous photos. It also includes some amazing videos of secret moments with owls, as well as audio recordings of the range of owl vocalizations, from a great gray owl’s deep, throaty hoot to the “devil’s cackle” of a Eurasian eagle owl. I hope people can make it to these talks—I’ll be signing books there—or perhaps catch one virtually. There’s a schedule of upcoming events at my website.

I do have another book in the works, but I’m going to be owly about that and keep it a secret!

Author headshot of Jennifer Ackerman by Sofia Runarsdotter.

Get the Book

What an Owl Knows

What an Owl Knows

By Jennifer Ackerman
Penguin Press
ISBN 9780593298886

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