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Life Science


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Owls of the World: Their Lives, Behavior and Survival by James R. Duncan (Firefly) An in-depth reference to owls around the world.

Owls of the World traces the remarkable evolution of 205 owl species and their place within the avian order as both predators and prey. Major owl species are covered as well as the lesser-known species only be found in more remote geographic locations. The owls of Australia , New Zealand , and Indonesia are compared with North American, European, and Asian species in terms of habitat, adaptability and physical appearance.

This abundantly illustrated reference features: - Detailed description, history, habitat, range maps and conservation status for 205 species - Common and scientific names - Commonly known owl behavior, plus recently discovered mating, hunting and survival techniques - The nature of owls including the discovery of a new owl species - Owls in mythology and culture - Threats to owl populations - A world directory of owl species, including taxonomy and a range map for each species

Excerpt; I am often asked: "Why are you so interested in owls?" This is difficult to answer. My emotional reaction to owls is nothing short of an aptitude, a passion, and a love affair of sorts. Not the kind of expression people expect from a scientist. After all, the widely held and incorrect stereotype is that scientists are always objective about their research subjects. And I am not alone. Consider Paul Johnsgard's personal dedication in his wonderful book, North American Owls:

To those who know owls to be something more than ordinary birds
if something less than gods,
deserving our respect and love

I have had years to search for a more objective or rational reason why owls fascinate me, reasons acceptable to more orthodox fellow scientists. When needed, I trot out the somewhat sterile: "Owls are excellent research animals with which to examine the natural history of vertebrate predator-prey relationships." I also sometimes state, correctly, that: "As top predators with large home ranges, many owls are good indicators of healthy ecosystems and sustainable development." These are reasons consistent with my personal conservation ethic. But what really excites me about owls is that even in our modern times there remains so much to learn about them.

Owls are among the first birds that children readily identify and distinguish from other birds. When people see or interact with owls they express themselves differently than, say, with a crow, heron or chicken. Perhaps this is because an owl's head and face appears somewhat similar to ours. Like us, owls have large, forward-facing eyes. This gives them excellent binocular vision, an important aid for rapid depth perception while hunting visible prey or gauging distances to perches while flying. Their relatively large eyes relate to their nocturnal habits. Large eyes gather more light at night than small eyes. The staring, wide-eyed aspect of owls makes them look innocent or bewildered, like infant humans. Relatively large eyes are also known to stimulate the emotions of caring and affection in humans and perhaps in other mammals. Cartoon animators and advertisers, in recognition of this human trait, draw characters with oversized eyes. The good and loveable characters (e.g., Mickey Mouse) typically have big eyes, the villains, narrow and shifty eyes.

The eyes of an owl are surrounded by a feathered disk that gives it a primate-like head -- big and round with no apparent neck. Like us, owls blink with their upper eyelids (most other birds use their lower eyelids). The exposed part of their short, curved bills appears remarkably nose-like completing the human-like image. These characteristics have resulted in owls becoming icons in human culture in diverse and sometimes bizarre ways.

Other animals besides humans have also taken notice of owls in subconscious and immediate ways. Many prey species react quickly to the presence of an owl by fleeing, giving alarm calls or even gathering in groups that drive away the potential predator. Behavioral biologists have elicited similar responses by using exaggerated large yellow eyes painted on flat or round objects, a phenomenon known as supernormal stimuli. Over the millennia, individual prey that did not flee or react quickly enough to the sudden appearance of owls were selectively weeded out by predation.

Many species have capitalized on the evolved effectiveness of the owl-eye stimuli. This signal has independently evolved in manids, butterflies and moths, beetles, flies, katydids, fish, frogs and a non-raptorial bird called the sunbittern. The northern pygmy owl has a set of owl eye-like spots on the back of its head to either ward off mobbing birds or to thwart potential ambushes from predators, including other owls. Not willing to wait for evolution to run a parallel course on humans, golfers, gardeners and others sometimes paint owl-like eyes on the back of baseball caps to ward off attacking songbirds while working or playing outside.

Nocturnal and retiring, hence often mysterious, relatively little is known about the 205 species of owls alive today. Indeed, new owl species have been discovered as recently as 2001 in remote and exotic corners of the globe. Owls of the World celebrates the lives and biology of these fascinating creatures that influence us and other species that share our planet.


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