Owls have mojo. Eye-of-the-beholder mojo, admittedly, but mojo all the same, our fascination swinging from fear to reverence. Take the owl’s silent flight. Now that’s magic — or maybe it’s an evolutionary soundproofing modification of their fine feather filaments to dampen and absorb the disturbance of onrushing air. Every party needs a pooper.
The French fancied owls enough to paint them in their caves 20,000 years ago, which means they probably ate them. Likewise in a distant time, Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Yakima or someone carved owls as petroglyphs in what is now Washington state. Greece’s Athena, goddess of wisdom, is accompanied by a little owl, and the association with knowledge rubbed off on the bird. Catching a glimpse of the little owl hidden in the folds of Athena’s robe is as darling as it gets.
Mike Unwin — who keenly narrates “The Enigma of the Owl: An Illustrated Natural History” — brings the right measure of tempered awe, clarity and glee to the project. He lets the owl’s story speak for itself, with help from his pen and easy sensibility, all the while infusing his writing with the right measure of starchy erudition: the springy, high camp of Jeeves, with a faithfulness to scientific inquiry.
Just so, Unwin begins to explore the enigma, the unnerving/dashing qualities, of owls: The word acuity doesn’t begin to unlock the piercing qualities of their eyes and ears; their celebrated 240-degree neck swivel is a result of their eyes not moving in their sockets; their zygodactyl talon arrangement — two facing forward, two facing back — have a clutch as powerful as a Rottweiler’s bite; they do not build nests, being the original squatters; their protective coloration is as freakish as the “dazzle” camouflage painted on warships to make them disappear at sea.
The less flattering affiliations — haunters of burial grounds, omens of death and destruction — Unwin suggests come from being creatures of the night. (Yes, Unwin knows that a quarter of the 250 species — owls are as varied as snowflakes — keep crepuscular hours, and another 3 percent are daylight ramblers. Little gets past him.) And while nocturnalists are suspicious enough, owls are plain tough customers.
Consider: Owls are “notorious” for intraguild predation (that is, they dine on their cousins) as well as for eating scorpions, porcupines, foxes and crocodiles (best not to leave Junior in the sandbox when a Blakiston’s fish owl is in the neighborhood), and they fight with badgers, martens and other junkyard bruisers. It is with a bit of pride that Unwin writes, “Many species take prey larger than themselves, with the smallest owls punching well above their weight.” Owls take no prisoners.
“The Enigma of the Owl” is chaptered by bioregions, with a choice handful of representative species. Just as there is not a muzzy word in the text, not one of the 200 photographs is unworthy of a museum home. David Tipling stands this side of perfection — the owls a bit human, as it were, like dollar bills painted by J.S.G. Boggs (RIP). Some photographs are as jolting as chewing on tinfoil, without the aftertaste. Others anthropomorphize: The rufous owl looks like Jimmy Durante. The underwings of a barn owl melt the bird into the clouds; a Eurasian eagle owl perches on a graveyard branch in the Black Forest at midnight.
All is not well in the owl’s world. There is far too much habitat degradation. “The Enigma of the Owl” is lurid and informed, but willy-nilly an activist statement. If you can’t get roused to a sense of protectiveness, you’d better check yourself for signs of life.
Peter Lewis is the book review editor at the Geographical Review.
The Enigma of the Owl
By: Mike Unwin and David Tipling.
Publisher: Yale University Press, 288 pages, 200 color illustrations, $40.