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Science writer Ackerman seeks to discover 'What an Owl Knows'

Left, cover of the book "What an Owl Knows;" right, photo of author Jennifer Ackerman, leaning against a wood fence. A Great Grey owl is perched on the same fence a few feet away from her in the foreground.
Sofia Runarsdotter
Penguin Random House
A great grey owl and Jennifer Ackerman, writer of "What an Owl Knows."

Award-winning and best-selling writer Jennifer Ackerman returns with a fascinating scientific investigation into owls.

Owls have fascinated us since ancient history.

Evidence of this has been found in Greek, Egyptian, and Japanese mythology, in cave paintings in France dating back to 30,000 years ago, in Native American culture, and in popular culture today, as noted by writer Jennifer Ackerman in her new book What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Bird.

Ackerman writes about science, nature and health. She’s won many awards for her writing and included among her books is the 2016 New York Times bestseller The Genius of Birds.

Owl research is important in order to understand the birds and protect their habitat, but in a recent What We're Reading interview, Ackerman explained how owl research has also helped with human research.

"Their natural history is to be inconspicuous and hard to find."
Jennifer Ackerman, author of "What an Owl Knows"

She recounted how a scientist discovered that an owl’s pupils get larger when they hear sound. This information was useful in determining that infants’ pupils also get larger when they hear a sound.

“This owl research actually led us to a better testing for hearing in babies,” Ackerman explained.

While What an Owl Knows reveals interesting new science on owls, Ackerman noted there is so much more to discover. In particular, it’s still unknown how many owls exist out in the wild because of the nature, habitat and behavior of owls.

“They’re very hard to study, very hard to monitor. Many of them live in very remote locations. Their natural history is to be inconspicuous and hard to find,” Ackerman said.

But habitat loss is the greatest threat to owls right now, she warned.

She noted forest environments and grassland are being decimated, but people can help by supporting legislation and research organizations that are working to protect habitat. Ackerman recommends the following organizations:

We can also help owls by fostering habitat in our own yards. This includes not mowing in order to bring out the kind of animals owls prey on, putting up owl boxes and limiting pesticide use, Ackerman said.

"What an Owl Knows is so rich in useful information that I’ll be keeping it within easy reach from now on."
Laura Erickson of "Speaking for the Birds"

What an Owl Knows highlights fascinating facts and new scientific findings on owls, and Ackerman’s writing keeps the book engaging, like a story. She provides easy explanations of the science and physiology of the birds, making it a highly accessible and compelling read. Ackerman’s appreciation and love for these birds is felt on every page.

Laura Erickson in her review of the book on her For the Birds podcast praises the book, noting, “I quickly finished reading it but doubt if I’ll ever be done referring to it — What an Owl Knows is so rich in useful information that I’ll be keeping it within easy reach from now on.”

Learn more about Jennifer Ackerman at her website.

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What We're Reading is made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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Tammy works at Bemidji State University's library, and she hosts "What We're Reading," a show about books and authors.