Book Review: Jennifer Ackerman’s What an Owl Knows shares the feathery love

Owls are a bird that have fascinated humans for a very long time, appearing all over the world and finding significance almost everywhere. It’s the question of why we love them so much that Jennifer Ackerman explores in her new book What an Owl Knows.

Ackerman’s book serves as something of a comprehensive overview of owls, covering a wide range of topics from an owl’s unique biology, the way they breed and raise owlets, how they speak and communicate with each other (and humans!), where they fit in our superstition and stories, and of course the question posed in the title: how ‘wise’ really is an owl? This range of subjects made for a fascinating read, and it’s an approach that makes perfect sense. Each of the areas in the book influence each other, and it’s hard to understand owls by looking at only one.

The wide range, however, does not mean that the book does not go into great depth in each of the topics posed. Instead, the book strikes a mostly satisfying balance between going into a few examples in depth enough to explain the topic without spending a lot of time on each individual point. While some sections were shorter than others, they are all enjoyable and informative. And, for those who wish to go delve deeper, there’s a recommended reading list at the end of the book.

It’s abundantly clear how much research went into What an Owl Knows; from the interviews and readings, to the visits to conservation centres and tagging stations. By consulting so many different people, all with their own fields of expertise, Ackerman fills each page with expert knowledge and facts that are sure to fascinate even those who think they already know everything about owls.

While this book may be filled with facts about owls, it’s clear, however, that this book is not just about birds; but also about the people who love them. The ecologists and ornithologists and conservationists who appear in these pages don’t just share their research, but also why they love these special birds and what their research has meant to them. Some of these people are not what you would expect – a dog trainer who helps sniff out the pellets of owls, or a musician using her well-trained ears to identify the calls of owls – and rather than distracting from the owls, it just adds to them and their case.

It’s the science, and the story behind the science. The book explores what we know and how we know it – and even what we don’t know (it’s a surprising amount), and that makes each fact the book does impart even more impactful. Combine that with Ackerman’s prose, which is smooth and full of flavour, and this becomes a book that is heavy with wisdom, but light as a feather to read.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in owls or birds at large, no matter how much you know or don’t know already.


What an Owl Knows by Jennifer Ackerman is available now through Scribe Publications. Get a copy from Booktopia HERE.