Book Review
A Love Story: Rachel Carson, Jennifer Ackerman and the Wonder of Living Things

Jennifer Ackerman, What An Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds (Penguin Press, 2023).

Jennifer Ackerman’s What An Owl Knows is a love story. It concludes with Black conservationist and photographer Day Scott, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a vehicle crash, holding an Elf Owl, the world’s smallest, about the size of a sparrow, in her hand. Day, who is studying the habitats and effects of climate change on six small owl species on Norfolk Island in Australia, wonders what they are both thinking. “I felt like I partially knew. She is so tiny and fragile, and we are so big… I was looking at her and feeling like we had some kind of connection, because I was trying to care for her in the best way I possibly could. And whatever the importance of life was, right then it came down to this one owl I was holding in my hand.”

Or, take the amazing abilities of Marjon Savelsberg to hear and distinguish between the sounds produced by individual owls. Savelsberg did not plan to study owls. A trained classical musician who studied with the Johann Strauss Orchestra, Savelsberg had to give up music as she developed difficulty breathing and controlling her muscles. Doctors said that her idiopathic cardiomyopathy would not let her live more than a decade. Instead she took to studying owl vocalizations, both listening to variations in timing, timbre, and pitch, as well as analyzing spectrograms. Now she has been given special permission to enter a large, dark quarry in a natural area, riding a mobility scooter to listen and get recordings of Eurasian Eagle Owls. Her research helps transform what we know about owls. But it is Savelsberg’s own transformation by owls and their allure that is of equal importance. “From that moment on I was allowed to go into areas where no one else could go,” she explains. “I suddenly had colleagues again and was seen as much more than someone with a disability. After having to give up music, I had been so depressed.” Savelsberg realizes she is still a musician and that “All the skills I learned, the talent I have, I can still use…Because I am so fascinated by sound, I can do a lot for this bird.”

This sense of deep admiration, understanding, empathy for another species is what clearly drives Jennifer Ackerman, as it did Rachel Carson. Both women are sensitive, observant, feeling, and want to know everything about the birds and fish and animals that they have observed, then share those observations and feelings so that other people — their readers — will care as deeply. Both believe as Carson wrote in Silent Spring

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

This belief led Carson to make various species the main characters of her first book Under the Sea-Wind (1941) where we share the feeling of an owl’s hunger after an Arctic snowstorm.

Snowy Owl Hunting Ptarmigan, Under the Sea-Wind, illustration by Bob Hines, courtesy of Rachel Carson Council

Ookpik, the Snowy Owl, is able to detect a white Ptarmigan camouflaged against the snow solely by the small black dots of its eyes. Ookpik strikes with “a soft whoosh of wings –a scattering of feathers—and on the snow a red stain spread.” Eighty years later, Ackerman wants to know the full life story of these “ethereally beautiful” master predators who appear occasionally on winter beaches in the United States. Why? Because human destruction of their habitat so skillfully described by Rachel Carson has led to their reduction to only about 30,000 Snowy Owls worldwide. They are now listed as endangered. It leads Denver Holt, a leading owl expert called “Mr. Owl” to trudge across difficult Arctic terrain in search of them. But in the past few years the number Holt sees has plummeted. Same for lemmings, the little rodents that sustain snowy owls. Human-induced climate change that is melting the Arctic is a chief cause.

Like Carson, Ackerman believes that we need to take action to protect and save owls worldwide. But that is likely to happen only if we come to have a sense of wonder and awe — admiration and love — for these enigmatic creatures who have captured the human imagination since the days of prehistoric cave art. Jennifer Ackerman is blessed with an extraordinary amount of what Carson famously called “the sense of wonder.” It leads her around the world in search of owls, those who study them, and even to close encounters observing the intimate love life of Northern Pygmy Owls in Montana. Ackerman signs up to study them with Steve Hiro, a retired heart surgeon, who discovered that “he loved owls.” Pygmy Owls are small, quiet and secretive, best found by listening. Hiro and Ackerman hear a soft trill and a single toot. Then, after quiet, “a squeaky, higher-pitched double toot.” The female in response. Soon Ackerman is almost eye to eye with one “tooting and trilling.” Though fierce little predators, she writes, “no one can accuse them of being untender to their mates.”

What An Owl Knows takes us around the world, since owls are found on every continent. We learn new and fascinating science about how owls hunt, navigate, remember and map territory. They come in all sizes and shapes and have amazingly acute vision, hearing and heightened senses that allow them to locate and kill prey even hidden deeply in snow.

Like Rachel Carson, Jennifer Ackerman backs up her beautifully wrought narrative with a prodigious amount of research in scientific journals, field work, interviews and conversation with experts. But it is her feeling, her wonder, her sensitive and sensuous writing, her perfectly wrought sentences that deserve to be read aloud, that marks this love story between humans and owls as a classic. Jennifer Ackerman deserves to be on your shelf of beloved books, or in the syllabus of those who want to promote empathy, life-long learning, and citizen engagement — right alongside Rachel Carson.

Bob Musil – President & CEO of the Rachel Carson Council

Bob Musil is the President & CEO of the Rachel Carson Council and author of Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment (Rutgers, 2016) and Washington in Spring: A Nature Journal for a Changing Capital (Bartleby, 2016). He is also the editor of the forthcoming annotated edition from Rutgers University Press of Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind with his Introduction, updated marine science, and historic and contemporary illustrations and photographs.