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Owls in Context: Nature and Culture

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 5:53
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A review by Alison Beringer

The House of Owls

by Tony Angell

Yale University Press, 2016

224 pages, $18–softcover

ABA Sales #14480P

One of the first bird sounds many children learn is the hoot of an owl—but not so often from the owl itself as from an adult’s mimicking the bird. How many children actually get to hear, and see, their first owl in the wild?

Tony Angell’s House of Owls is more than a book about owls. While taking delight in the birds themselves, Angell constantly emphasizes the need for thoughtful observation and active respect of the planet’s ecosystem as a whole. It is not enough to teach the next generation about the sound, the shape, and the literary interpretations of the owl—all of which Angell explores. Rather, we must also become more aware of how human actions have far-reaching, often detrimental effects on these birds and other species, including us. This book is never homiletic or pedantic, however, and it does not gloss over the many other challenges not of human making that owls face.

Angell presents observations and facts in an engagingly personal voice, guiding the reader to a more complete understanding of how owls—and others—manage in a world dominated by humans. The House of Owls is a successful synthesis of the pleasurable with the didactic, merging anecdotal tales of the author’s experiences with individual owls (often given a name by Angell) with scientific data on the ABA Area species.

Angell’s book is made the more compelling by the exquisite and eloquent pictures by the author. Chapter 1, for example, includes an evocative illustration of two perched screech-owls. The view is familiar to many of us: dark shapes perched high on a branch with indistinguishable markings. Angell’s drawing also includes a nest box he had installed; as the reader learns, the picture refers to an episode when the young Western Screech-Owls were still in the box but both parents roosted outside, presumably due to space limitations. The adult owls’ “positions appeared to be strategic, not random, because they were perched on opposite sides facing the nest, where they had a direct view of it should any threat appear”—an avian neighborhood watch.

Angell, House of OwlsAfter capturing the reader’s interest with the textual and pictorial narrative of his nesting Western Screech-Owls, Angell moves in the second chapter to an in-depth description of the evolutionary history and distribution of the order Strigiformes, one species or another of which occupies every continent but Antarctica. Angell proceeds to such life history topics as habitats, predatory skills and practices, migration patterns, and owls’ physiological adaptations to their environment. To illustrate how owls are able to accommodate unexpected temperature changes, the author offers his personal observations of Snowy Owls perching with wings spread and throat fluttering in the attempt to cool off on an unusually warm winter day. Persuasively, Angell invites the reader to imagine what unchecked global climate change could do to such creatures; gently, he reminds us that carbon emissions must be reduced if we want to prevent the eventual extinction of species, including owls, that are unlikely to be able to cope with ever hotter environments.

Like the first chapter, this one is full of evocative illustrations, often showing owls engaged in predatory activity. A Barn Owl dangles a rat from its bill; a Great Gray Owl swoops down over a wintry landscape as a small furry rodent trots through its snow tunnel in ignorance of the looming danger. Of course, owls are not only predators: Another shows a Barred Owl flying off with a Western Screech-Owl in its talons.

The best of the book’s many fine illustration shows a car’s windshield and two hands on a steering wheel, a perspective that forces the reader into the role of a driver. The big eyes of a Great Horned Owl stare out at us as it collides head on with the windshield. Shocked and frightened eyes, resonating with those of the owl, are depicted in the rear view mirror: What driver reading this book does not dread just this moment? In the accompanying text, Angell recounts a friend’s unfortunate vehicular meeting with a Great Horned Owl. The narrator neither sentimentalizes the event nor admonishes the driver, instead letting the accident lead to a discussion of the difficulty of gauging an owl’s size. While even the biggest Great Horned Owl comes in at only about four pounds, the driver of that car, no doubt due to shock, initially guessed in the environs of fifty.

BINbuttonOne other aspect of Chapter 2 merits attention, namely, Angell’s comments about domestic and feral cats. Although owls and other predatory birds were persecuted well into the last (and are still persecuted well into this) century for killing songbirds and gamebirds, Angell points out that domestic and feral cats continue to devastate bird populations with impunity.

In his third chapter, “Owls and Human Culture,” Angell explores a selection of artistic and literary interpretations of the owl throughout the centuries, including Biblical and mythical sources and archeological evidence. This, the shortest of the six chapters, will appeal particularly to those who are more familiar with owls in cultural settings than in their natural habitats.

Chapters Four, Five, and Six are devoted to detailed information on various species of American owls. Angell gives each a brief introduction, often built around the memory of his encounters with the particular species. There follows a series of subsections treating range and habitat, food preferences, vocalizations, courtship and nesting, threats and conservation, and “vital statistics” for each bird; each entry is also accompanied by a range map.

Despite their similarities to a field guide, these chapters deviate from most works in that genre by presenting the birds not phylogenetically but according to their habitats. Thus, Chapter 4, “Owls in Company with People,” treats owls that occur—at least seasonally—in fair proximity to humans, including the Barn Owl, Eastern and Western screech-owls, and Northern Saw-whet, Short-eared, Long-eared, Barred, and Great Horned owls. The following chapter concentrates on owls whose “destinies are especially closely tied to particular conditions”; here the reader finds the “Northern” Spotted, Elf, and Burrowing owls, Ferruginous and Northern pygmy-owls, Whiskered Screech-Owl, and Flammulated Owl. The final chapter, “Owls of Wild and Remote Places,” reads like a list of desiderata for many birders: It discusses the Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Snowy Owls. An extensive bibliography offers plenty of titles for those who want to further their knowledge of owls.

The House of Owls is well worth reading, both for those already interested in these captivating creatures and for those who simply appreciate a well-written and beautifully illustrated work. Tony Angell manages to do what few others can: He inspires readers not only to admire owls, but also to do whatever we can to ensure that these species remain part of the (not just our) ecosystem.

Angell is an award-winning artist, and it is fitting to close with a few comments on another of his illustrations, a sketch of the Barn Owl in Michelangelo’s “Night.” That sculpture personifies nighttime as a reclining woman with an owl perched beneath her bent knee, sheltered beneath the figure’s leg. As in Michelangelo’s sculpture, Angell shows the left foot of the owl reaching tentatively out from the protective crook of the woman’s leg, a hint at the owl’s precarious situation: The owl is not fully contained or controlled by the human, yet one thoughtless shift of the woman’s leg will make the bird take off, or, worse still, crush it. This sketch encapsulates the idea of symbiosis—human and avian, picture and text, art and literature—that runs as a leitmotif throughout this highly recommended book.

Alison Beringer

 Alison Beringer is Associate Professor of Classics and Humanities at Montclair State University. Her book The Sight of Semiramis appeared in 2016; her current project is a study of monumental sculpture in the life and literature of the late Middle Ages. A native of Canada, she birds widely in the Americas and Europe.

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