The European tawny owl is more heard than seen. It is a supreme night hunter, preying on rodents and small birds. (David Tipling/Yale University Press)

Many years ago, in the blackness of nighttime in the country, I saw an apparition. It was a large, white-winged specter hovering by the hedgerow some six feet in the air.

Naturally, I took it to be an angel and went on my way. The episode haunted me for years, even after I had come to the conclusion that it may not have been an actual angel, but a barn owl. We think of barn owls as having light-brown plumage, but their bodies and underwings are as white as their heart-shaped faces. In flight they are angelic, though a rodent may have another perspective.

This is the not-unpleasant paradox of the owl. It is a bird of prey — a natural-born killer — and yet is the most cuddly of our raptors. This has to do with the way owls are put together. Unlike, say, a hawk, which has an exposed beak and eyes on either side of a relatively small head, the owl is all face. Its eyes point forward, like ours, the facial disks around them magnify the head, and the feathery tufts suggest ears even if they’re not. The eyes are disproportionately large and seem to be all knowing. This is why we anthropomorphize owls.

“We imagine that their faces reveal their thoughts or mood,” said Marianne Taylor, a natural history writer. “Some appear kindly and wise, others stern, angry, surprised or even haunted. The calls of owls also catch our imagination. Because most of them call at night, when there is little other competing noise, we hear them clearly and often find their voices startling or chilling.”

Taylor lives in southern England, where that call is the classic hoot of the tawny owl — the soundtrack to many a horror film of the 1960s. In our neck of the woods, we are more likely to hear the call of the closely related but larger barred owl. Owls such as these are the gardener’s friend. They are highly efficient at finding voles, the mouselike creatures that can devastate a garden with their root chewing and bulb scoffing.

The great gray owl of the north is one of the world’s largest owls, but much of its bulk consists of insulating plumage. (Harper Design)

But owls are loved for their place in the natural world, not just their utility, and owl fans have reason to rejoice. Coincidentally, two new books, large and lavishly photographed, detail all the world’s known owls, some 230 species around the globe.

The first is by Taylor, “Owls: A Guide to Every Species in the World.” The second is by author Mike Unwin and photographer David Tipling, “The Enigma of the Owl: An Illustrated Natural History.” Taylor’s book groups the birds by species, Unwin’s by region.

Thumbing through their pages, it’s tempting to alight on the biggest owls, if only visually. In our region, that means the great horned owl. It is drawn to mature trees, and one lived in my garden in Alexandria once for two or three weeks, in the upper boughs of an old holly tree. I found the arrival of this magnificent animal to be exciting, but this was before learning, as Unwin explained, that the talons of this bird “may exert a pressure that is around the same as the bite of a Rottweiler.”

We may also see a snowy owl, an arctic bird that strays south along the Eastern Seaboard at this time of year. It is large, white, nests in the open in the tundra and is a lemming’s worst nightmare, if you discount cliffs. The great horned owl’s Old World counterpart, the Eurasian eagle owl, sits atop the food chain. “Prey up to the size of rabbits is swallowed whole,” Unwin writes. It vies with another eagle owl, Blakiston’s fish owl, as the biggest, though the latter is found only in East Asia. Loss of habitat to development has led to its endangered status. Nesting boxes on the Japanese island of Hokkaido have helped check the decline. Here, Unwin tells the reader, this giant among owls is revered as “The God that Protects the Village.” Taylor calls it “an overstuffed teddy bear with a ferocious face.”

I find some of the smallest owls to be the most enchanting, though I live nowhere near their range. The smallest is the elf owl, which inhabits the semideserts and chaparrals of the American Southwest, nesting in cavities made by woodpeckers in saguaros and other cactuses. It is the size of a sparrow but with intense yellow eyes, and will happily eat a scorpion.

Perhaps the most endearing small species is the red-chested owlet, which is dove gray and has big yellow eyes and a light breast flecked like a thrush, except the dots are tear-shaped. It lives in the forests of West Africa.

Taylor, via email, said that she finds the ashy-faced owl of Hispaniola the most beautiful. It has warm, red-tan plumage and a distinct frame to its face. She described it as “a small, deep-golden barn owl with huge, soulful dark eyes in a dusky, almost violet-tinted face.”

The world’s smallest owl, the elf owl, nests in the saguaro cactus of the American Southwest. (Yale University Press)

Her favorite species is the ubiquitous short-eared owl, found in five of the seven continents. She likes it because it hunts on the wing — most owls perch and look out for passing prey — and in daylight. “It has a wonderfully light, agile flight and is a joy to watch,” she said.

What can a home gardener do to help owls? Taylor suggests putting up a nesting box that might attract an eastern screech owl, to leave some parts of the yard wild to encourage prey species and to avoid heavy pesticide use. That’s sound advice for any gardener who wants to foster wildlife. An animal at the top of the food chain needs all the links below it. Just keep the cat indoors if you see a great horned owl.

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