Nature Writing on the Elusive Owl of Eastern Russia

Book review: Owls of the Eastern Ice, by Jonathan C. Slaght

Jonathan C. Slaght is a wildlife conservationist dedicated to preserving and documenting the Blakiston fish owl, a rare species found primarily in Siberia. In Owls of the Eastern Ice, he documents his time in the Russian Far East, and the unique challenges of trying to research this incredibly elusive predator. Slaght also details how he became acquainted with this lesser-known bird, beginning his life-changing journey of tracking and working for their conservation. He would ultimately spend five years on visits to Russia’s remote, farthest-flung region in an attempt to research and protect the owls in their natural habitat.

Blakiston’s fish owls are huge, in owl terms. They top out at more than two feet tall with a six-foot wingspan. The first one Slaght and his fellow researchers caught weighed “almost three times the average weight of a male great horned owl,” for comparison.

It’s an informative look into what goes into this kind of tricky fieldwork and the principles of conservation — how complicated each step of the process can be, how much can quickly change, how intricate it all is. As well as the difficulties inherent in working as a field scientist. There are just so many uncontrollable factors involved in trying to locate and tag the owls. Not to mention the terrain itself — Slaght describes having to throw himself into climbing trees, staying up all night in the eerie, mysterious darkness of the Siberian forests, and of course wrangling the frightening and potentially dangerous owls when they’re able to be caught and tagged.

Slaght shows brilliantly how challenging this is, and walks the reader through the processes when issues arise, like owls shedding their trackers or confusion over their identities (with so few in the area, there were limited options as to who one might be, although it was very exciting for the scientists when it seemed there was a new one, or eggs or baby chicks in a nest).

Slaght’s writing is well polished and accessible for lay readers without much background in any of his topics — conservation, owls, or Siberia, and he colorfully weaves in some of the culture and atmosphere of this remote but fascinating area of eastern Russia. His descriptions can be absolutely amazing, describing one man encountered thus: “He walked gingerly, with knees that had borne his weight for close to six decades and grown weary of the task.”

Or my favorite, when an Amur tiger had been sighted in the region, causing their Russian host, a colorful Siberian local, to set out to try and find it before it found them: “The sight parodied a tiger hunt from imperial India: a royal riding proudly upon an elephant’s back in search of his elusive striped prize. Only here it was an eccentric Russian straddling a wheezing tractor in his underwear.”

As good as this objectively was, and as important as I think it is for understanding of animal conservation, I didn’t feel as intense an interest as I expected to. I guess I’m more generally interested in stories and experiences from Siberia, and so I found myself less invested in the details of the actual fieldwork around the owls (I know that sounds awful — I’m sorry, owls! I still want the best for you!). I so loved his descriptions of traveling through the Primorye region, and the locals who assisted the scientists, that I wanted much more of this. What’s there was still very much a highlight though. For those with a strong interest in natural science and learning about the nitty gritty of conservation efforts, as well as this species of owl that I, and I suspect many others, have never heard of, it’s an excellent guide from the most preeminent scientist working to protect them.

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl
by Jonathan C. Slaght
published August 4, 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

16 thoughts on “Nature Writing on the Elusive Owl of Eastern Russia

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    1. The Tiger is one of my all-time favorite books too! I actually picked this one up because the description reminded me so much of that, and it’s one of those books I wish I could read again for the first time. This is in the same region but quite different in tone and content. It’s a good book, and definitely an important topic, I just couldn’t get as into the fieldwork aspect of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. When I saw the cover, I thought, “meh, book about owls” but having read your review I am now interested! Nothing to do with the man straddling the tractor in his underwear, honest.

    Liked by 1 person

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