Frank Izaguirre reviews Owls: Our Most Charming Bird by Matt Sewell
Ten Speed Press / Penguin Random House | 2015 | ISBN: 9781607748793 | 128 pages
There is perhaps no group of birds more frequently personified than owls. We love them, and we love to make them like us. Seizing on the human impulse to make owls wise, brooding, terrifying, irresistibly cute, and everything in between, Matt Sewell’s Owls: Our Most Charming Bird sets a new standard for appreciating these birds with a delightful assortment of illustrations and quixotic life histories of 47 owls from around the world.
Sewell captures the thing about owls that is perhaps their most remarkable quality: whether we encounter owls as children or grandparents, whenever and wherever we find them, owls are seen as magical. Almost anyone will stop to appreciate an owl, from the most seasoned naturalist to someone with little interest in wildlife. You don’t have to be a birdwatcher or nature lover to have a thing for owls.
In his previous work, like Our Garden Birds and Our Songbirds, Sewell kept Britain as his area of focus. But in Owls, he’s gone global. I expected that the owls included might be skewed toward Holarctic species, but I was wrong: tropical America and tropical Asia are just as well represented as North America and Europe. While some of Sewell’s owls have remarkably small ranges, like the fearful owl, endemic to just a few islands in the South Pacific, others can be found all over the world, like the cosmopolitan barn owl. There are interesting owls from Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. Every region has several memorable representatives. The beauty here is not just that it’s fair; it’s that anyone from any part of the world can pick up this book and become enamored with an owl that is close to them, and maybe even want to go look for it.
Each owl gets two pages: one for text, which runs from one to three paragraphs, and one for the illustration. Sewell’s drawings are vivid and playful, and they do a wonderful job of matching the verbal description. For instance, in the book’s first entry, the barn owl’s eyes, described as “dark, unfathomably deep,” are just so. And even though his description of flammulated owl as “a little wet owl who has been rolled in a dusty elixir—a potion concocted from a pinch of leaves from an autumnal, amber forest floor, which are then delicately crushed to a fiery dust and transfused with a handful of sparks, and a bit of eye of newt and toe of frog mixed in for good measure” might seem impossible to replicate as a drawing, well… wait until you see it for yourself. Spot on.
Every picture is as fun as it is cute. Ural owl looks super chill, while the Oriental bay owl is so grumpy I just want to give it a hug. His portraits have unexpected surprises, as well. The little owl, Athene noctua, is resting on Athena’s shoulders, and the burrowing owl is completely decentered from the page, popping its little head up from the bottom of the book the same way we often find them, peeping at us from their subterranean homes.
His personifications build on each other, too. The Stygian owl is an “even moodier Long-Eared Owl,” and greater sooty owl is “a negative Barn Owl” and also a “goth Barn Owl,” comparisons I would never have made myself and might easily be called absurd, but yet instantly make sense and seem totally true.
Sewell finds interesting ways of loading his text with natural history facts. The northern white-faced owl entry, for example, begins with a unique take on the wise old owl trope: “with the waxy whiskers of a Mandarin kung-fu wizard, the Northern White-Faced Owl from the savannahs of Africa is a magnificent magician of mutation.” But within a few lines, we get this: “in the presence of a larger predator, he draws in all his feathers, turns sideways, and makes himself as slim as possible. With squinting eyes and a beak completely covered in an oily brush, the owl now resembles a braided branch.”
Impressively, Sewell’s survey of the world’s owls even includes the two most recently discovered species: the long-whiskered owlet of Peru and the Omani owl, discovered only a few years ago and just in time to make it in the book. Their inclusion adds even more credibility to Sewell’s owl authority: he clearly has his finger on the pulse of the ornithological world, something bird nerds like me are sure to appreciate.
One of the few oddities of the book is its structure. The four sections–woodland owls, tropical owls, wilderness owls, and desert owls–seem haphazard. About a dozen species are in each section, but practically any of them could be “wilderness owls,” and several owls in the “woodland owls” section could just as easily and perhaps more appropriately be in the “tropical owls” section. Great horned owl would make sense in any of the four sections, but it happens to be located in the only section where I’ve never seen one, the desert. It might have made more sense to divide the book into geographic regions, or even to have no sections at all.
But the odd section choices are ultimately inconsequential. This book is a joy to read and flip through and share with friends. From those who think of owls primarily in regard to Tootsie Pops or adolescent wizards, to those who travel to faraway islands or remote rainforests to seek out the world’s rarest birds, this book will appeal to anyone with a love for owls.
Which is to say, just about everyone.
Header photo of owl by Lisa Redfern, courtesy Pixabay.