An interview with artist and author Tony Angell, whose new book was inspired by a lifelong fascination with owls.

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Lit Life

If you had parents who scolded you for the tiniest trace of grass stains on your pants, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of envy for wildlife artist and author Tony Angell’s upbringing.

The son of a former FBI agent and a schoolteacher, Angell grew up in the canyons of the foothills surrounding California’s San Fernando Valley. It was before the age of television, and Angell and his pals “were more participants with what we were discovering than passive and vicarious observers,” he writes in his new book, “The House of Owls” (Yale University Press, 192 pp., $30) He had the run of the still-rural, half-wild valley.

Author appearance

Tony Angell

The author of “The House of Owls” will appear at:

7 p.m. Thursday, May 7, at the Readings Gallery at Village Books, 1200 11th St., Bellingham; free (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com).

7 p.m. Thursday, May 14, at the University Book Store, 4226 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).

One day his father passed on gossip from friends in the movie industry — barn owls were nesting in an Old West movie set in one of the valley’s production lots. Angell and his pals broke in, found the nest, scooped up an owlet (one of four), took it back home and raised it until it could live on its own.

“All this is illegal now,” he writes in his new book. “For good reason.”

But he developed an obsession with birds, and a fervent desire to know more about them. On a trip to Michigan, his family found a dead screech owl on the side of a snowy road. He cut off the wings and took them back to California. He still has them. The wings “are intact just as beautiful as they were when I first touched them more than 65 years ago,” he writes.

In his quest to learn everything about owls, Angell has done things most of us wouldn’t consider. He has rehabilitated owls found injured on the side of a highway — he estimates that at one time or another, half the species of owls in America have lived on the Angell property in Lake Forest Park (including, on occasion, inside the house).

One, Buttons, a barred owl hit by a vehicle, was so damaged he lived with Angell’s family for the rest of his life (Buttons and Angell engaged in reciprocal bouts of pleasurable head-scratching). An injured pygmy owl was so fierce, it wouldn’t accept any enclosure. Angell and a wildlife artist friend, Fen Lansdowne, amused themselves by watching the little pygmy rocket all over the house.

Wildlife artist Tony Angell demonstrates the calls of the great horned owl, barred owl and Western screech owl. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

“The House of Owls” is the culmination of a life spent studying, nursing, drawing and sculpting owls. Early on, Angell learned two key things: to appreciate the birds’ many idiosyncrasies and abilities, and to be unafraid of them, as owls learned in turn to be unafraid of him.

Both written and illustrated by Angell, “The House of Owls” begins with a chapter, a memoir of sorts, of the 24 years his family lived with a succession of screech owls in their yard. They built a box for them. They bathed them with the garden hose. They watched the cycle of courtship and mating, and the dogged battle of the parents (not always successful) to keep their young ones alive.

Angell then walks through the natural history, mythology and mystique of owls. Each major category of owl in North America gets a write-up, from the feisty burrowing owl to the common barred owl to the magnificent snowy owl, an occasional visitor to Puget Sound on winter vacation from its Arctic home. Angell’s personal experiences with a broad cross-section of owls enliven this material.

Angell is co-author of two books on crows and ravens with University of Washington professor John Marzluff. He says both varieties of birds have learned to coexist with humans, each with a different survival strategy.

Crows “read us, and we read them,” he says. Owls cope through avoidance. That shyness, and the fact that many owls are nocturnal, have made them objects of fear and wonder to humans for thousands of years.

Owls and crows are the earliest birds whose images were reproduced by humans. The 30,000-year-old image of a European eagle owl adorns the roof of a cave at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in France, Angell writes.

The Egyptians had a hieroglyph fashioned after the barn owl. The ancient Hebrews thought they were “abominations,” Angell writes; the Greeks and Romans believed they conveyed wisdom.

In “Macbeth,” Shakespeare made the owl a harbinger of evil and doom. In rural England, farmers would kill a barn owl and nail it to the barn door in an attempt to ward off evil — in fact, they were killing a key predator responsible for keeping barns free of rats and mice.

Tony Angell’s studio work table is scattered with the tools and results of his craft. Decades of observing owls have left Angell with a sense of wonder when it comes to the shy — and beneficial — creatures. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Tony Angell’s studio work table is scattered with the tools and results of his craft. Decades of observing owls have left Angell with a sense of wonder when it comes to the shy — and beneficial — creatures. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

For Angell, owls evoke a reverence for nature’s astonishing creations. “There’s a very definite emotional connection with owls,” he says. “ To hear an owl to me is the sound of wilderness, of vitality, of possibility — of more questions than I could ever ask of what is going on in nature.” What some people get from the swelling of church music or the words of an inspiring minister, Angell gets with the calls of owls (he is an expert owl-call imitator).

“The House of Owls” distills this reverence, a lot of wisdom and an encyclopedia’s worth of facts about owls. Most of all, it conveys an inspired artist’s admiration for a beautiful, mysterious and tough bird that survives against considerable odds in the world of men.

“I have a credo,” says Angell. “A scientist can tell you what is, an artist can tell you what’s possible.”