With 50 years of research behind him, Heimo Mikkola is surely one of the most distinguished authorities on owls. One can well understand why he would have been selected to write this publisher-conceived title, but it is less a synthesis of any new research on these birds, and more a sumptuous visual essay on his two favourite families.
The bulk of the book comprises short synoptic essays on all of the world’s owls, each accompanied by a selection of high-quality photographs. Most of the species are treated over a one- or two-page spread, with a maximum of seven images over four pages. However this more detailed coverage is reserved for a few highly charismatic family members, such as Spotted Little Owl Athene brama of South Asia, or for very diverse polytypic species, like the Afro-Palearctic migrant Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops.
There is also a valuable 70-page introduction to the entire order that tackles generic themes, including conservation, taxonomy, the birds’ life histories and ecology. Mikkola is well known for his 360-degree scholarship and he includes additional sections on more unfamiliar subjects, such as abnormally plumaged birds, the recorded incidents of longevity across various owl species, as well as historical and contemporary cultural responses to the family. In many regions owls are still objects of superstition and the author offers a hope that his book will help correct these baseless prejudices.
The main subject covered in the author’s individual species accounts is that of identification. The rest of the text is organised under several key headings - vocalisations, food and hunting, habitat, status and distribution, geographical variation and similar species - usually with just two or three sentences per topic. The species entries are completed by very clear distribution maps, which have been largely borrowed from another Helm title, Owls of the World by Claus König, Friedhelm Weick and Jan-Hendrik Becking.
The taxonomy that underpins the book may prove to be a source of controversy for informed strigophiles. Mikkola has divided the two owl families into 249 species, largely following Helm’s Owls of the World (König et al. 2008), which represents a substantial increase on pre-existing totals. For example, Gill and Donsker’s IOC World Bird List (version 3.2, 2012) lists 229 species, while the present working total in the BirdLife International checklist is 201 species. The systematics adopted by Mikkola expands the genus Tyto to 24 species, Otus to 48 species and Bubo to 25 species. Indeed, the book elevates four taxa to species level for the first time, one of which, the Santa Marta Screech Owl Megascops sp., has yet to be officially described.
It is a measure of how thoroughly the author and editors have done their picture research that only a handful of species lack photographic images, including the very recently described Pernambuco Pygmy Owl Glaucidium minutissimum. Yet it is notable that the other seven species that have all been described to science only since the beginning of this century are here in glorious technicolour. In many ways it is this comprehensive library of 750 colour images that is the book’s major contribution. The photographs are, with few unavoidable exceptions, pin-sharp images and while they are largely of perched birds, there is a liberal sprinkling of stunning action shots. The full body of visual imagery is the work of more than 200 photographers worldwide and while it is difficult to single out any one practitioner, the contributions by Vincenzo Penteriani are notable for the sense of intimacy that they bring to creatures otherwise famous for their inaccessibility and secrecy.