Peterson Reference Guide to Owls
Of North America and the Caribbean
Scott Weidensaul
(Houghton Mifflin)
Several years ago, when we reviewed Cynthia Berger's book Owls, we wrote,

    Not only are their table-manners deplorable, their accommodations are vomit-inducing. The Screech Owl will typically have a nest filled up with various types of garbage. "The bottom of an owl's nest makes a nice home," says Ms. Berger, although we believe the word "nice" here should be considered relative. "It's a messy mulch of its own feces, coughed up owl pellets, and the remains of prey such as mice and beetles."

    Ants and fly maggots move in to feed on this, so it becomes a stinkpot cafeteria. To make it even more vile, some owls bring home Texas blind snakes --- live ones --- who, once in the nest, defecate and release "a noxious, smelly liquid, then writhe so that the slippery mess coats their small bodies."

Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean --- hereinafter referred to as Peterson --- is much too genteel to talk about "feces," "messy mulch" and "noxious, smelly liquid." The ever-elegant Roger Tory himself put on white gloves and observed birds from a delicate distance with golden opera-glasses (fresh from the last act of "Tosca") and would never ruffle their feathers, nor complain about their outhouses. He certainly would have avoided the vile details of their messy bed-room floors.

Owls of North America and the Caribbean neatly delivers separate pristine chapters on thirty-nine species of owls of United States, Canada, Mexico, and various islands of the Caribbean including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Hispaniola. The only place where Peterson lets down his hair --- so to speak, he was in fact as bald as a hoot-owl --- has to do with sexual dimorphism.

No, it's not a new sexual minority demanding its place in the sun, with special recognition and marriage-rights and pleas for liberty ("Free Sexual Dimorphs!") It refers, instead, to the fact that Women's Liberation has already swept the world of the strigiformes. The females of the breed often outweigh, even tower over their dinky little mates. Some observers have noted that the male Ferruginous Pygmy, who suffers from enough ridicule what with his runtish stance and his pompous name, has been subjected to new humiliations by the female of the species. She lords over him, often makes screeching sounds as he tries to mount her, hooting him down, even tucking whip-like saplings in her beak to pound him with, at times, stripping his backside bum bare for others to mock.

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In the introductory chapter of Peterson, we find the song of the owl featured, or rather, there are lists of grunts, gasps and screams that are far less than elegant birdsong, more like something that might be heard anywhere except in the soft night air. At times we think that Peterson --- or his stand-in here, Scott Weidensaul --- is pulling our leg; perhaps he is confusing his glossary of owl-hoots with hoots of The Goo Goo Dolls, Snotty Scotty and the Hankies, The Sweatpant Boners, Microwavable Tree Frogs --- or most applicable to these creatures --- Nate Nocturnal and the Nightly Emissions.*** For us, the eighty-six songs of the owls listed here sound like something out of MTV. Imagine, The Crested Owl croons with "Juvenile agitation calls, adult hoots." The Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl makes an "Advertisement Call," whatever that is, and the Jamaican Owl offers "Juvenile Begging Calls" ("Dad, why can't I have the car tonight?")

The Great Gray Owl is listed as having "A Male Hoot and a Female 'Whoop,'" but we are not advised if that is before or after. And the Elf Owl, using, apparently, its cell phone, has a "male chatter call and a female station call."

I count over three hundred color photographs in this lush volume. The sexiest owl, to my eyes, is the Snowy with its ominous white mask and the elegant white laced outfit with tawny dark spots. The editors no doubt agree with our fascination, giving it a generous twelve pages of text with almost twenty photographs --- one head on, an owl in flight going right at the camera, making one want to duck [See Fig. 2 above]. (This is no idle threat. According to Wikipedia, "The photographer Eric Hosking lost his left eye after attempting to photograph a tawny owl, which inspired the title of his 1970 autobiography, An Eye for a Bird.) These guys aren't kidding, and their white tuxedoes with the stylish chestnut spots may take the dandy Bird-of-the-Year Award. They know how to make babies, too. A nest of the Snowy Owl in northern Canada was found with fourteen eggs, and despite the ferocious appearance of the parents, the young with their "mesoptile down" look good enough to eat.

I take that back. Global warming is killing the Snowy. Weidensaul estimates that this Owl may now be down to a mere 14,000 pair. Evidently, their main food is the lowly lemming, who is not disappearing because of their lemminglike suicide behavior patterns but rather through habitat loss "as alder and willow invade open tundra with the advancing tree line, rendering it unsuitable for the lemmings on which the breeding Snowy Owls depend."

The most dignified owl has to be the Spectacled Owl which the author calls "one of the handsomest raptors in the world." [See Fig. 1 above].

Owls may need spectacles since they are what we used to call "farsighted," and they are not all that intelligent, despite their reputation for being wise. We think animals with large eyes are bright, but owls can be downright stupid, even these hooters with their fancy specs: one observer in Panama came onto "spear-nosed bats mobbing a roosting Spectacled Owl" who had been trying to feed on their babies. Bats certainly don't like being eaten out of house and home by a scholarly-looking bird, birds who also are known to eat possum, skunks and "naked-tail climbing rats," some of which are damn near as big as they are. Not exactly a scintillating diet, especially, as we pointed out in our earlier review, owls don't nibble delicately at, for instance rat-paté; they usually swallow their victims whole, head first.

Owls have many songs that are dedicated to them, including "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," "Them There Eyes," and "I Only Have Eyes for You." The prize of them all, made famous by Louis Armstrong, was also my mother's favorite, one she used to try to lull me to sleep when I was a being my usual bratish self. It was a favorite of pre-WWII set, written by Johnny Mercer, and went,

    Jeepers creepers, where'd you get them peepers?
    Jeepers creepers, where'd you get those eyes?
    Gosh, oh, get up; how'd they get so lit up?
    Gosh, oh, gee, oh, how'd they get that size?

    Golly gee, when you turn them heaters on
    Woe is me, got to put my cheaters on

    Jeepers creepers, where'd you get them peepers?
    Oh, those weepers --- how they hypnotize

    Jeepers creepers, where'd you get them peepers?
    Oh, those weepers --- how they hypnotize
    Where did ya get those?
    Golly, where'd you get those?
    Where did you get them there eyes?

which says something, perhaps too much, about my mum's taste in music (and, possibly, my own googly eyes).

--- Pamela Wylie

***Interesting bands left out of this list include The Shamu Afterbirth Orchestra, Johnny Uterus and the Fallopian Tubes, Screaming Iguanas of Love, The Placenta Sandwich, Harry Palms and the Gym Towels, Martha and the Muffins, The Rampant Hedgehogs, Sperm Bank Junkies, Sticky Finger and the Pornos, Strawberry Foreskin, Screaming Moist Accountants, The Spastic Colon, Lost Underpants of Doom, Stud McCoy and the Creemy Twinkies, and Snails on Acid, and The Hacksaw Circumcision.