By Mike Unwin
and David Tipling
Yale University Press. 288 pp. $40 nolead ends nolead begins
Owls have mojo. Eye-of-the-beholder mojo, admittedly, but mojo all the same, our fascination swinging from fear to reverence.
Mike Unwin - who narrates The Enigma of the Owl: An Illustrated Natural History - brings the right measure of tempered awe, clarity, and glee to the project. He lets the owl's story speak for itself, with help from his pen and easy sensibility, all the while infusing his writing with the right measure of starchy erudition: the springy, high camp of Jeeves, with a faithfulness to scientific inquiry.
Unwin explores the enigma, the unnerving/dashing qualities, of owls: The word acuity doesn't begin to unlock the piercing qualities of their eyes and ears; their celebrated 240-degree neck swivel is a result of their eyes not moving in their sockets; their zygodactyl talon arrangement - two facing forward, two facing back - has a clutch as powerful as a Rottweiler's bite; they do not build nests, being the original squatters; their protective coloration is as freakish as the "dazzle" camouflage painted on warships to make them disappear at sea.
On the dark side, they are tough customers. Owls are "notorious" for intraguild predation (that is, they dine on their cousins) as well as for eating scorpions, porcupines, foxes, and crocodiles (best not to leave Junior in the sandbox when a Blakiston's fish owl is in the neighborhood), and they fight with badgers, martens, and other junkyard bruisers. It is with a bit of pride that Unwin writes, "Many species take prey larger than themselves, with the smallest owls punching well above their weight." Owls take no prisoners.
The Enigma of the Owl is chaptered by bioregions, with a choice handful of representative species. Just as there is not a muzzy word in the text, not one of the 200 photographs is unworthy of a museum home. David Tipling stands this side of perfection - the owls a bit human, as it were, like dollar bills painted by J.S.G. Boggs (RIP). Some photographs are as jolting as chewing on tinfoil, without the aftertaste. Others anthropomorphize: The rufous owl looks like Jimmy Durante. The underwings of a barn owl melt the bird into the clouds; a Eurasian eagle owl perches on a graveyard branch in the Black Forest at midnight.
All is not well in the owl's world. There is far too much habitat degradation. The Enigma of the Owl is lurid and informed. If you are not roused to feel protective, better check yourself for signs of life.
This review originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.