Jonathan C. Slaght’s “Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” Receives the 2021 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

The 2021 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award Winner is: Jonathan C. Slaght, Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

From the judges’ citation:

“It is an honor to present the 2021 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award to Jonathan C. Slaght for his fascinating chronicle following the elusive Blakiston’s fish owl. In beautiful and lyrical prose, Slaght presents a detailed and absorbing account of the joys and challenges of a conservation biologist. His lush narrative transports the reader to the wilds of Eastern Russia, chronicling the harsh winters and winds, and the utter joy of owl duets. This is a compelling book that deftly weaves the cultural challenges of field research, and the entangled worlds of humans, technology, and nature with novelistic dexterity.”

PEN American Center, the largest branch of the world’s leading literary and human rights organization, announced this week the winners and runners-up of the 2021 PEN Literary Awards, the most comprehensive literary awards program in the country. Among the awards is the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, which celebrates writing that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of physical and biological sciences. The winner receives a cash award of $10,000 and is honored at the PEN Literary Awards. This year’s PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award judges are Nassir Ghaemi, Christine Kenneally, Erin Macdonald, Banu Subramaniam.

The PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award was founded by scientist and author Dr. Edward O. Wilson, activist and actor Harrison Ford, and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The award is also supported by James and Cathy Stone. The inaugural award was conferred in 2011.

More about the Book:

I saw my first Blakiston’s fish owl in the Russian province of Primorye, a coastal talon of land hooking south into the belly of Northeast Asia . . . No scientist had seen a Blakiston’s fish owl so far south in a hundred years . . .

When he was just a fledgling birdwatcher, Jonathan C. Slaght had a chance encounter with one of the most mysterious birds on Earth. Bigger than any owl he knew, it looked like a small bear with decorative feathers. He snapped a quick photo and shared it with experts. Soon he was on a five-year journey, searching for this enormous, enigmatic creature in the lush, remote forests of eastern Russia. That first sighting set his calling as a scientist.

Despite a wingspan of six feet and a height of over two feet, the Blakiston’s fish owl is highly elusive. They are easiest to find in winter, when their tracks mark the snowy banks of the rivers where they feed. They are also endangered. And so, as Slaght and his devoted team set out to locate the owls, they aim to craft a conservation plan that helps ensure the species’ survival. This quest sends them on all-night monitoring missions in freezing tents, mad dashes across thawing rivers, and free-climbs up rotting trees to check nests for precious eggs. They use cutting-edge tracking technology and improvise ingenious traps. And all along, they must keep watch against a run-in with a bear or an Amur tiger. At the heart of Slaght’s story are the fish owls themselves: cunning hunters, devoted parents, singers of eerie duets, and survivors in a harsh and shrinking habitat.

Through this rare glimpse into the everyday life of a field scientist and conservationist, Owls of the Eastern Ice testifies to the determination and creativity essential to scientific advancement and serves as a powerful reminder of the beauty, strength, and vulnerability of the natural world.

Praise for the Book:

From the very first pages, Slaght . . . grips readers with vivid language and tight storytelling . . . Part of the book’s success lies in the author’s ability to present the stakes and draw out the tension therein, making what could be a dry tale of bird-watching a compelling story of the necessity of conservation . . . Slaght lives up to his rugged-conservationist persona as he writes of helter-skelter snowmobile trips circumnavigating rushing rivers of ice, vodka-soaked encounters with village locals, and solitary, achingly beautiful nights observing the majestic owls firsthand. He is an engaging writer who imbues each scene with an intimate sense of place . . . Top-notch nature writing in service of a magnificent, vulnerable creature.
Kirkus, starred review

As fine a writer as he is a scientist . . . Slaght’s extensive field research is rendered into clear, readable prose, making it a solid choice for bird lovers, but also for armchair travelers looking for eco-adventure on the fringes of civilization.
Library Journal, starred review

“Until Jonathan C. Slaght, the world’s largest owls were mythic, seldom-seen forest phantoms. With this book, Slaght takes us with him to the wild and remote forests of the Russian Far East on a quest to track and study Blakiston’s fish owls. It is an absorbing account, richly detailed and gracefully written with humor and empathy. Owls of the Eastern Ice is a superb narrative devoted to the natural history and conservation of a rare and beautiful species.”
–George B. Schaller, Wildlife Conservation Society

Owls of the Eastern Ice is thrilling, high-spirited adventure that beautifully evokes Russia’s Far East and the strange, hardy beings, both human and wild, who inhabit it. Jonathan C. Slaght survives swift rivers, rapacious poachers, and ungodly quantities of cheap vodka in his heroic quest to protect the Blakiston’s fish owl, a creature that’s as wondrous and fierce as the landscape it haunts. Slaght’s story won’t just make you fall in love with a bird you’ve never seen, it will give you a new appreciation for the tenacity and resourcefulness of wildlife biologists on both sides of the Pacific.”
–Ben Goldfarb, author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Finalists for 2021:

The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, Jennifer Ackerman (Penguin Press)

Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Rebecca Giggs (Simon & Schuster)

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers, Emily Levesque (Sourcebooks)

The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move, Sonia Shah (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl, Jonathan C. Slaght (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Read about the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award on the website for the PEN American Center

Press Coverage

StarTribune. “Minneapolis Writers Win PEN America Literary Awards.” By Laurie Hertzel. April 8, 2021.

Compare ×
Compare National Report Cards Continue Reviewing