Books about owls

Posted here 05 February 2022
Written September 2018

Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington and Owls (Wildlife Monographs) by David Tipling & Jari Peltmäki and Wesley: The story of a remarkable owl by Stacey O’Brien

Owls are in fashion. Semblances of owls adorn many products, including purses and padlocks, and advertise many services, including insurance and online dating. In these guises, they are surprisingly recognisable even when brightly coloured, misshapen, wearing clothes, gesturing with their wings, or squashed into a space too small even for a Little Owl. But a real owl isn’t for decoration or the pursuit of higher market share. Real owls merit being the subject of serious books.

I can’t give a detailed critique of Owl Sense because I was so disconcerted by the pastiche of nature writing and irrelevant memoir that I gave up on it less than a third of the way through. I was also irritated by the frequent changes of tense. I got far enough to judge that the title and the endorsement on the front cover (“A beautiful book…”) are misleading. A skim of the rest of the book suggests that there are some nuggets of information in here, but it’s too difficult to find them.

So, for the benefit of anyone else who would prefer straightforward information about owls, I’m going to suggest a lesser known alternative: Owls (Wildlife Monographs). This really is a beautiful book and it covers all twelve Northern European owls, not just the eight in Owl Sense. The two wildlife photographers behind this book give insightful observations about owl behaviour in general and fact files about those twelve species of owl living in Northern Europe. It’s written in a flowing prose style accompanied by stunning photographs (alternatively, a collection of stunning photographs accompanied by text in a flowing prose style). A highlight for me is a photo of a Northern Hawk Owl perfectly camouflaged while sitting against a nest hole in a tree trunk — I had to look at the photo closely in order to see the owl.

On reflection, it makes sense that these photographers can write engagingly about owls as well as provide good pictures, for two reasons. First, it takes great patience to wait for hours in challenging terrain for the opportunity for a good photo, and one would have to know quite a lot about owls beforehand in order to know when and where to wait. Second, they not only capture the owls on camera but also endeavour to understand and help them; along the way, they correlate owl populations with the availability of prey, build nest boxes, and feed a starving owl.

If you want a book mixing owl information with memoir, there’s one that really packs a punch: Wesley: The story of a remarkable owl by Stacey O’Brien. The mixture works in this book because it was actually conceived as memoir. It just so happens that the author was a biologist working with owls when she agreed to personally care for an injured barn owl and that this undertaking dominated her adult life. Stacey’s book is both instructive and inspirational, and it delivers what is claimed in the subtitle — that is, a “story of a remarkable owl”.