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Owls! Strange and Wonderful

The Story Behind the Book

How should a writer start a book about owls? At first I thought of the obvious: a scene of a owl swooping out of the night air and catching prey. (I wrote a predator-prey scene to start Scorpions! Strange and Wonderful, and one of another kind to start Octopuses! Strange and Wonderful.) But I settled upon something else, and also broke a "rule" of good writing: start sentences in different ways. Readers like that. However, sometimes breaking rules can work out well. Here is how this book starts:

They are called ghost birds.
They hunt in the night.
They fly with silent wings, and swoop down to pounce on prey with sharp talons.
They call with hisses, howls, wails, yowls, or screams that may send a shiver of fear down your spine.
They are owls.


I'm happy with this beginning. Repeating "they..." gives it a kind of rhythm and growing power. You might want to try something like this some time.

I've been lucky to meet quite a few owls in my life. Once, hiking with a friend and some of my kids in a wild forest in the Hudson River valley, I noticed a hollow in an old tree. I looked in, and a screech owl looked back at me. I stepped back and called everyone in. We all had a closeup peek without troubling the owl very much.

One of the treats of camping in a favorite place in the Adirondack Mountains of New York is abundant barred owls. It is thrilling to hear them, and try to "talk" to them at night. My fiction picture book Bear Hug, about a dad taking his two little kids on their first-ever camping trip, includes a scary but delightful encounter with a barred owl.

My home in West Nyack has some wild woods around, and we often hear the hoots of great horned owls. And in the summer, we sometimes hear the wonderful "whinny" of a screech owl. (As my book points out, screech owls do not screech--unless under attack. And, yes, a great horned owl might go after a smaller owl.) This species doesn't seem to nest very close, so we usually hear their sweet sounds in the late summer, after the breeding season. Perhaps they are young screech owls looking for new territory. In the woods around here I have a couple of well-hidden bird houses, covered with tree bark, just right for screech owls. So far, no tenants.