All of my favorite scenes in the Harry Potter movies involve owls. Now that I live in the woods, I can hear owls hooting almost every night, but how can I go about identifying them? Is there someone out there who is even nuttier about owls than I am? Someone who has actually spent nights out in the woods with a flashlight and camera, identifying these mysterious birds? The answer of course, is yes. Jim Burns, author of "North American Owls" doesn't write a 'mere' natural history text about these (mostly) nocturnal predators. He also narrates his journeys of discovery, from Alaska to southern Arizona, usually accompanied by Deva and the bumbles (his wife and two boys). His stories sing a mysterious, mythical, even mystical nocturne. He familiarizes us with "the more nebulous and mysterious aspects of [the owls'] darker side."
Owls are creatures of wisdom, harbingers of death. Even a naturalist of "reputed backcountry acumen and skill feels a little shaky thrashing around in the dead of night chasing ghosts." The chapter on Long-Eared Owls is written as a poem, and many of the narratives of other North American owls lapse into blank verse.
The book's photographs equal the beauty and strangeness of the text. One photograph of a Short-Eared Owl shows its head rotated so that its beak is pointed at 'two-o'clock.' I knew owls could swivel their heads around to look over their backs, but I had no idea they could rotate them like the hands of a clock. I laugh every time I come across this photo. The photos also capture the predatory nature of owls: bloody bits of rabbit and mouse dangling from their claws and beaks.
The author, Jim Burns, has been photographing birds for over 20 years and many of the pictures in this book are his. I am guessing from the text that his favorite photograph is one he took of a Northern Pygmy-Owl, silhouetted against a hazy solar disk, mouse clutched in talons--more art than identification photograph. My own favorite is of a soaring Snowy Owl, because that's the only owl I've ever seen, gliding down the road ahead of me on a cold December evening. I swear its wings spanned the entire width of the state highway. Big. Silent. Snow-colored. Eerie. A visitor from the Arctic that we Michiganders are rarely privileged to see.
This book also contains sidebars with identification features, habits, and range/habitat maps. A CD is included with the book that contains the vocalizations of all nineteen owls included in the text. My only complaint is that the author did not include his own vocalizations on each track in order to identify the owl that is hooting, screeching, or barking. You have to follow the track numbers in order to identify the owl--a small complaint indeed, concerning a very fine book.
Incidentally, one of the things I learned from this book is that Harry Potter's owl Hedwig is a MALE Snowy Owl.