Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

February 2016

Vol. 44, No. 1

About Books: Quand le Hibou Chante

Mark Lynch

Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean.
Scott Weidensaul. 2015. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“Quand le hibou chante, la nuit est silence.” (“When the owl sings, the night is silent.”)
(aphorism by Charles de Leusse)

Early in the morning in mid-September 2009, Sheila Carroll and I were in a car zipping along Route 122 to North Quabbin. As we rounded a curve in the town of Barre, we saw a Barred Owl sitting in the middle of the road. Realizing that the owl was injured, we swerved to the side of the road just beyond the bird, and I ran back to save it before another car could fatally hit it. Another car was indeed heading down the road, so without thinking I grabbed the owl and realized three things in rapid succession:

  1. Owls are amazingly light in weight. It is as if there is almost no bird there, only feathers. Of course I had read about this, but it was the first time I had handled a wild Barred Owl.
  2. Owls are incredibly soft to the touch. It was like picking up a pile of eider down.
  3. I was an idiot. As I grabbed the Barred, in a reflex reaction it dug its talons deep into my left arm almost to bone.

I ran back to the car with the owl firmly attached. I stood there not knowing exactly what I should do. When I tried to pry the owl off my arm, the talons only sank deeper into my flesh. I was also starting to feel a bit queasy. It took us a few painful minutes to come up with an idea of how to get a stressed owl off my arm. Sheila took one of the cloth grocery bags we had in the back, placed it over the owl, and held the owl sideways. Sure enough the bird relinquished its vise-like grip.

Bleeding and in a lot of pain, I headed first to the other side of Worcester to the Tufts Wildlife Clinic in Grafton holding the bagged owl in my lap. I had seen and heard many Barred Owls, but this was the closest I had been to one, and I realized how little I know about a species I thought was familiar. Once at Tufts, one of the staff quickly took charge of the bird. When I showed him my wounds, he smiled and showed me even larger scars that he got from tussling with a wounded Osprey. It may have been his way of politely saying I was a rank amateur. Finally, we headed to an outpatient clinic to deal with my wounds. Here I became the staff’s morning entertainment because no one had ever had a patient who had been wounded by an owl.

A few days later, I got a note from Tufts informing me that the Barred Owl had to be euthanized because too many bones had been shattered. Sadly, this is a common fate when an owl and automobile collide because of the lightness of its bones.

Birders are so passionate about owls that any day they see one is considered a very good day afield. We get a real thrill if we find a roosting Great Horned Owl deep in a grove of pines or spot a sunning Eastern Screech Owl puffed up in its roost hole. Even species that are often diurnal and therefore easier to spot, like Snowy Owls, are the highlights of any birding day. But most of us don’t watch owls exclusively when most species are going about their lives. Owling at night is one of those birding activities that only some of us do, but we rarely enjoy it. Humans are not comfortable in the dark, and frankly many find it a bit creepy being out in forest and field in the dark. Who knows what nocturnal weirdo will find you while owling? It is also a tough activity to explain to the police called by homeowners wondering what that car is doing parked alongside the woodlot down the road. And if all this wasn’t discouraging enough, your success rate of just getting to hear an owl, let alone see one, is slim. I have gone owling many times and have struck out more often than not. For all these reasons, while working on the Breeding Bird Atlas II and on Christmas Bird Counts, I have a very hard time convincing participants to do at least some token nocturnal owling. Some birders give it a half-hearted few minutes. More won’t even attempt it. Owls are birds that are very tough to get to know on their terms.

“The owl,” he was saying, “is one of the most curious creatures. A bird that stays awake when the rest of the world sleeps. They can see in the dark.
I find that so interesting, to be mired in reality when the rest of the world is dreaming. What does he see and what does he know that the rest of the world is missing?” (M.J. Rose, Seduction)

Owls of North America and the Caribbean by Scott Weidensaul is a stunning volume that compiles most of what is known about these nocturnal birds in this region. Weidensaul is a naturalist, researcher, and writer who is passionate about owls. The book is the latest title in the relatively new Peterson Reference Guide series. So far this series has included books on molt, birding by impression, gulls, and sea watching. A book on woodpeckers will be published in 2016. These are all large format, content- heavy volumes, well researched and profusely illustrated with color photographs. They are all readable, collectible, and most important, useful.

Owls are a great choice for this series. There is a fascinating variety of species covered in this book. Weidensaul originally pitched the idea of covering all 75 species of owls found in the western hemisphere, but his editor wisely narrowed the focus to North America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In a recent interview with Weidensaul, I asked him why he was so passionate about including the species of the Caribbean. He replied that there are a number of species found there that are unique and little known to most birders, including island endemics like the Ashy-faced Owl (Tyto glaucops) of Hispaniola, the only Tyto-type owl other than the Barn Owl found in the region covered in this book.

This book was four years in the making, and Weidensaul has compiled an outstanding amount of current research from hundreds of wildlife biologists. Sometimes he even resorted to phoning the researchers to ask a specific question not answered in published papers. But despite this effort, it may come as a surprise to most readers that many gaps still exist in our knowledge of owls, even with the common species. As Weidensaul related in our interview, “I have joked that the most challenging aspect of this book was coming up with new and creative ways to say ‘we don’t know.’” Because many owls are secretive as well as nocturnal, they are among the most challenging species for field biologists to study.

Owls of North America and the Caribbean opens with sections on owl plumage, molt, topography, and behavior. There is an interesting section on “Reversed Sexual Dimorphism” (p. 3), which means that females of a species are larger on average than the males. The taxonomy of owls is far from clear cut:

In the case of Eastern Screech Owls and Barred Owls, for instance the molecular divisions do not correspond neatly to long-recognized subspecies. Close attention to vocalizations is also revealing many previously cryptic forms hidden within what are now classified as wide-ranging, geographically diverse species-forms that may warrant their own species designations. (p.
7–8)

Barn Owls, which range widely across the globe, may in fact be several different species. More research is needed.

The section on extinct owls of the area is really fascinating. During the Pleistocene there were several species of truly gigantic owls living in the Caribbean that stood several feet high and weighed an “estimated 20 lbs” (p.19). These massive flightless owls dwarfed all living species and likely survived by preying on “juvenile ground sloths” (p. 19). There is even a possibility that some of these monster owls survived to the period of human colonization of the region. Owling would have been more than a bit challenging with beasts like that about.

The thorough species accounts take up the bulk of the book. For each species there are details on size, longevity, systematics and taxonomy, distribution (including good maps), identification, vocalizations, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding behavior, and a bibliography for each species. One of the nice perks of this book is that it includes a link to a downloadable album of 86 representative vocalizations of the 39 species covered. Weidensaul also includes a general introduction for each species, a
paragraph or two in length. There are several good quality photographs of each species.


Short-eared Owl. Photograph by Sandy Selesky.

What really separates Owls of North America and the Caribbean from other identification guides is Scott Weidensaul’s writing. Most identification guides are horribly dry and jargon driven. Though this book is definitely packed with data and facts, Weidensaul gives the species accounts a more personal and idiosyncratic quality, thus making this book enjoyable to read. He describes the Stygian Owl (Asio stygius) this way:

Striking and more than a little eerie, with its sooty plumage and dramatic tangerine eyes, the Stygian Owl resembles a wraith in more ways than one. Although found from Mexico to Argentina, as well as two islands in the Greater Antilles, it is nowhere common, and its presence is often more a case of rumor and conjecture than hard fact. (p. 262)

With those two sentences, the reader has a sense of the experience of seeing this species and why it is one of the most wanted owls for many birders’ lists. Weidensaul is clearly fascinated by owls and enjoys finding them, and he conveys that enthusiasm to the reader in every species account. Weidensaul’s writing sets a standard for future books of this genre.

To date, Owls of North America and the Caribbean is the definitive volume about the owls of this region and an outstanding addition to the Peterson Reference Guide series. Reading the species accounts ought to inspire more birders to leave the safety of their homes, venture into the darkness, and try their luck at finding some of our local children of the night.

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