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Owls in the Family

Dianne Timblin

THE HOUSE OF OWLS. Tony Angell. xx + 204 pp. Yale University Press, 2015. $30.

Practically every culture has a story to tell about owls—considered together, they form a perplexing composite. Polish legend has it that owls became nocturnal because they were so beautiful that the other birds would whip themselves into a jealous frenzy and mob them by day. In some areas of Cameroon, owls are so strongly associated with evil that they are granted no name, known only as the bird that brings fear. Even the ancient Greeks (who thought enough of the bird that they stamped coins with its image) were conflicted. They favored the little owl, Athena’s familiar, but believed that the screech owl kept Hades company in the Underworld. Spotting an owl in the wild was therefore a transfixing moment: A little owl presaged victory; a screech owl, doom.

Today, as familiar as owls may seem, relatively few of us have actually seen one in the wild. Naturalist and artist Tony Angell is acutely aware of this gap between people’s perceptions of owls and what they know about them, and has spent most of his life preparing to help fill it. In his book The House of Owls, his accounts of owls’ lives and habits, along with his intimate, detailed illustrations, manage to make the creatures seem both more familiar and more mysterious: It turns out that the more you learn about owls, the more astonishing they are.

2015-07NightstandTimblinF1.pngClick to Enlarge ImageOver the past five decades, Angell has spent untold hours observing these birds. He has rehabilitated owls, sometimes for months on end, releasing them back into the wild whenever possible. When the effects of an injury were too profound (as with blind owls or those unable to fly), he has built protected spaces where they can live on his property and has cared for them for the rest of their lives. As an artist, he has sought owls out in the wild simply to be able to observe them, sketch them, or sculpt them. Tellingly, in the portion of the book that describes each of the 19 North American owl species, for nearly every species Angell opens by sharing a personal encounter. His career was in environmental education, and his enthusiasm for deepening readers’ knowledge of owls infuses his writing. When combined with his experiences living side-by-side with owls, the effect is that of a tale well told, beautifully illustrated, and imparted by just the right voice.

Throughout the book, Angell moves comfortably back and forth between personal anecdotes and zoological facts. The fascinating opening chapter describes a year in the life of a family of western screech owls (Megascops kennicottii) occupying a nest box Angell set up in a tree adjacent to his house. We go on to learn that screech owl families continued to occupy the nest for 25 years; Angell’s children grew up right next to generations of owlets, whose development they closely followed. “To a degree our well-being was measured by how the owls were doing,” he writes, “and our understanding of how the remaining wild community functioned here was predicated on the birds’ presence.”

Angell supplies a long chapter on owl behavior and physiology that is surprisingly riveting. A section about midway through the book addresses how owls have been considered and portrayed in human culture globally over the millennia. In itself this is a huge topic, and Angell does a good job of showing its contours and illuminating especially compelling aspects—for example, by describing (and memorably illustrating) how Europeans once affixed dead owls to their barns to fend off evil. Those who would like to read more along these lines should find Desmond Morris’s 2009 book Owl a fascinating follow-up.

Angell is a precise chronicler, both in words and images. Take, for instance, this description of how prey is positioned so an owl might swallow it whole: “As it closes in to bite the quarry, the bristles or filoplumes about its beak also assist the farsighted owl in lining up the body of the mouse, vole, or squirrel so that entry into its mouth is typically head first, with the prey’s legs pressed tight against its body for a more streamlined passage into the bird’s throat and esophagus.” The art that accompanies this narrative (see image above) perfectly complements it. Details like the bristles are a bit difficult to envision without the illustration; conversely, viewing the illustration without such detailed text would rob readers of an understanding of just how intricate this swallowing technique is.

Beyond their explanatory power, Angell’s illustrations play with perspective and composition in unexpected ways—the upward-gazing viewpoint in the above illustration, for example. Elsewhere, alongside a passage about how commonly owls are struck by cars, Angell powerfully captures a driver’s wide, startled eyes framed in the rear-view mirror as an enormous owl flies toward his windshield.

There’s something to that Polish legend: Despite being decked out in camouflaging earth tones, the owl’s loveliness is haunting and unmistakable. Still, after spending time with Angell’s artwork and reading of his astonishing and often moving encounters with these birds, one sees that aesthetic appreciation is just the beginning. Athletic, agile, resilient: These are wondrous animals indeed.

Dianne Timblin is the book review editor for American Scientist. Find her on Twitter: @diannetimblin.

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