Staring also sets the agenda for Angell’s enchanting look-in on some of the ‘least known birds of the avian kingdom’. It essentially tells of his 25 years watching a family of screech owls. He set up a nesting box – ‘the fortress’ – in the forest of his Seattle home and, for a quarter of a century, kept careful watch as different mating pairs came and went. He describes his sight of the fortress’s first two hatchlings, ‘As I stood below and opposite them, they seemed fixed on my form, and I was certainly transfixed by them. At that moment, it seemed that there was no predisposed or instinctual avoidance that separated us, just a simple intent to take one another’s measure.’
Throughout Angell uses his own intricate illustrations and approachable descriptions to make it easy to understand these strange birds’ anatomy; the disk of feathers around their eyes, which direct all possible light towards their pupils, the asymmetric ears of some species, which allow them to hone in on the exact position of prey in the snow, and all owls’ surprising weightlessness. ‘Holding the body of a great grey owl is similar to holding a big down pillow with a fresh sweet potato in the middle of it,’ he writes. ‘This is an owl with a wingspan and body length nearly as large as those of a small eagle weighing eight pounds although the owl itself weights less than half that.’ Most of their size, it seems, comes from feathers, which serve to silence their wingbeats and keep them warm in climates too cold for lesser birds.