Vanishing Species – Indian Owls


An article by Mohan Pai

 
The Indian Owls


Owls are considered Demon Birds and attract foreboding and superstitious epithets. Their nocturnal nature, their devil-like horns, their sudden screeching from ancient tree-hollows in cemeteries or their piercing lidless stare – all of these have long earned them pride of place, along with the bat, in the spook hierarchy of folk tales and horror films.
Added to this are the tantriks and medicine men, who use them in black magic rituals and ‘miracle cures’ for their gullible clientele. The most common purpose is witchcraft. As the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi, the owl is associated with wealth. So, those who hope to strike it rich with the help of the occult visit tantriks around the festive seasons of Dipavali and Durga Puja. The tantriks perform owl sacrifices, anoint their clients with sacrificial owl blood and give them an owl claw, guaranteed to bring in a massive fortune! Even educate, urbane citizens of Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Kolkatta indulge in this gruesome ritual.
Clients are willing to fork out up to Rs eight lakh for a gold-and grey barn owl or a great horned owl (Eurasian Eagle Owl) and these are endangered species and hard to find. The owl trade is tough to trace now. Owls are procured specifically on request and kept well out of sight.
Owls are also used in street performances, ‘blessing’ amulets for onlookers to purchase.
In South Indian cities, however, owls are not so welcome due to prevalent superstitious beliefs. But word of growing demand for the owls and the astronomical prices they can fetch has made its way down south. Trappers are descending into forests and grasslands, and coming out with sackfuls of Great Horned Owls, Barn Owls and Scops Owl to be trafficked to the north, according to recent reports from Kerala. Trappers are active in Chennai too.
Indian Eagle Owl
- Bubo bengalensis
Also known as Rock Eagle Owl, Bengal Eagle Owl.
The Rock Eagle Owl also called the Indian Eagle Owl or Bengal Eagle Owl, Bubo bengalensis is a species of large horned owl found in South Asia. They were earlier treated as a subspecies of the Eurasian Eagle Owl. They are found in hilly and rocky scrub forests, and are usually seen in pairs. They have a deep resonant booming call that may be heard at dawn and dusk. They are typically large owls, and have “tufts” on their heads. They are splashed with brown, and gray and have a white throat patch with black small stripes.They are seen in scrub and light to medium forests but are especially seen near rocky places. Humid evergreen forest and pure desert are avoided. Bush covered rocky hillocks and ravines, and steep, scored banks of rivers and streams are favourite haunts. It spends the day under the shelter of a bush or rocky projection, or in a large mango or similar thickly foliaged tree near villages. Their diet consists of mice and any small rodents and mammals, and sometimes birds.The deep resonant two note calls are characteristic and males deliver these “long calls” mainly during dusk in the breeding season. The peak calling intensity is noticed in February. Young birds produce clicks, hisses and open up their wings to appear larger than they are. Nesting adults will fly in zig zag patterns and mob any potential predators (including humans) who approach the nest. When feeding on rodents, they tear up the prey rather than swallow them whole. The nesting season is November to April. The eggs number three to four and are creamy white, broad roundish ovals with a smooth texture. They are laid on bare soil in a natural recess in an earth bank, on the ledge of a cliff, or under the shelter of a bush on level ground.
The Indian Eagle Owl is confined to peninsular India, Sind in Pakistan and Marakan in Burma (where it may now be extinct), it faces a high risk of total extinction in the near future (conservative estimates put the country-wide population of breeding birds at less than 2,000 pairs).Endangered condition An inhabitant of the deeply scored ravines and gullies, it clings to a precarious existence as human pressure drives it out of its preferred habitat (land development activities,using ravines and gullies as sewage dumps, the rock faces are intensely mined for slowly but steadily fills up the canyons). The indiscriminate use of pesticides in the environment, which steadily build up in the tissues of this bird, rendering it infertile (adding to its mortality), is another apparently insurmountable problem. Add to this local mythical beliefs (which consider owls as creatures of ill omen and harbingers of death) and the general apathy towards the plight of this species by environmentalists themselves, and their future looks very bleak indeed.Peculiar ‘who-whooo’ call It spends the day sitting motionless in a cleft in a rock face or under a bush, relying on its cryptically coloured plumage for camouflage. At dusk it sets out from its hiding place, preceded and accompanied by its peculiar and distinctive ‘who-whooo’ call, which though not loud, has a curious far-carrying quality.
Predatory nature
The various species of rodents found in these parts (gerbils, mice, mole rats and rats) constitute the prey base of ‘Bubo bubo’ (a single owl has been known to consume nearly 300 rodents in a year), and the predatory nature of the species keeps their numbers in check. At times other birds, snakes, lizards, frogs and even other owls are consumed.
Breeding habits
The breeding period in these parts of its range is from December to April. Sometimes three, but more commonly two, eggs are laid on the ground in a sheltered spot among the rocky cliffs (no nest is made) at staggered intervals. After an incubation period of approximately 45 days, the eggs hatch, again at irregular intervals, so much so that when the last chick emerges the eldest is 15 days old and capable of feeding by itself. Usually only one chick survives (cannibalism is all too frequent – the larger chick killing and eating its younger nest mates). The survivor matures rapidly, and is capable of flying in less than 45 days. Unfortunately, most details concerning the natural history of this bird remain unknown and shrouded in myth.
What used to be called the Great Horned Owl (Bubo Bubo Bengalensis) in Salim Ali, is now sometimes merged with The Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo Bubo) (Grimmett). However, some others (Grewal) maintain the subspecies distinction between and bengalensis and hemachalana, calling the first Eurasian Eagle owl (this is the Himalayan race), and the latter the Rock Eagle Owl. One characteristic is that the Rock Eagle Owl has streaks on the neck going down to the belly – which this bird seems to have.
Short-eared Owl
- Asio flammeus

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is a medium-sized owl that frequently flies during daylight, especially at dusk and dawn, as it forages for rodents. This owl is usually found in grasslands, shrub lands, and other open habitats. It is nomadic, often choosing a new breeding site each year, depending on local rodent densities. During the day, they may be found roosting on the ground or on open, low perches. The population of Short-eared Owl is declining throughout most of its range.
Identification:
Short-eared Owls are so named for the erect but barely visible ear tufts atop their heads. As the most aerial of all owls, this tawny-colored owl can be mistaken for the Northern Harrier at a distance. At 38 cm, these owls are medium-sized, with long, narrow wings. Tawny overall, they are spotted above and boldly streaked below, although streaking fades on the paler belly. Dark eye-patches offset the large golden eyes that adorn their broad facial disks. In flight, their outstretched wings expose the buffy patches above and black wrist-marks below. Their easy, wavering flight is characterized by stiff, erratic wingbeats and is very moth-like in appearance.
Calls: Silent except in the nesting season, the male Short-eared Owl gives a muffled “poo, poo, poo” in short series. When alarmed, both sexes bark out high, raspy, nasal notes “cheef, cheef, cheewaay”. Nests: Short-eared Owl nests beginning in April on the ground in a small depression excavated by the female and sometimes in ground burrows. Females select the nest site and only sparsely line it (if at all) with grasses, weeds and occasionally feathers. Often concealed by low vegetation, the nest is safe haven for the 4-14, 39 mm, creamy white, unmarked eggs of the clutch. The number of eggs laid is said to be dependant on the abundance of rodents. While the female alone incubates the clutch for 25-28 days, the male feeds her during this time. Young birds hatch asynchronously producing variously sized siblings in the nest. Both parents rear the young birds and fledging occurs in 31-36 days post-hatching
Food:
Although Short-eared Owls predominantly hunt small mammals, they also consume small birds and insects. These owls hunt at dusk and dawn and may hunt communally when prey is abundant. The primary feathers of their wings are modified to eliminate the noise of airflow, creating virtually silent flight for hunting. Soaring low over open country, these owls swoop down from the air or their perches (hawking) to snatch-up their victims with their sharp talons.

Spotted Eagle Owl
-(Bubo africanus)
The Spotted Eagle Owl is one of the smallest of the Eagle Owls. On average they weigh around one quarter of the weight of the largest of the Eagle Owl family, the Eurasian Eagle Owl. The Spotted Eagle Owl is found throughout most Africa south of the Sahara, with the exception of very dense forests. Up until 1999, it was considered that there were two subspecies of Spotted Eagle Owl found in Africa, but one of the subspecies, (Bubo africanus cinerascens), is now treated as a separate species, the Vermiculated Eagle Owl (Bubo cinerascens). In Africa there is now only one subspecies, (Bubo africanus africanus), and there is a second subspecies, (Bubo africanus milesi), is that is found found in the southern western parts of Arabian peninsula. The Spotted Eagle Owls hunt predominantly at dusk, spending most of the day concealed in trees, on rock ledges or even in burrows of other animals. They will take a large variety of prey, from small mammals, birds in flight, reptiles, scorpions, crabs, frogs, bats & insects. They are often seen hunting around streetlights in towns, which is where insects, & consequently bats hunting insects, tend to congregate at dusk. When preying on insects, it is necessary for the owls to eat a very large number, as they are quite small & take a lot of effort & energy to catch. Despite this, many Spotted Eagle Owls live on a diet of predominantly insects. When preying on mammals, the Spotted Eagle Owls will usually use the technique of still hunting, often catching the prey on the ground with a single steep swoop from their perch. If the prey is energetic, the Spotted Eagle Owls will often chase the prey for considerable distances. Investigations into the birds that the Spotted Eagle Owls prey on show a large variety, including terns, hornbills & even Lanner Falcons (Falco biarmicus). Basically, the Spotted Eagle Owls are very versatile when it comes to prey, feeding off anything they are able to catch, which enables them to survive fluctuations in prey populations. Spotted Eagle Owls usually mate for life. They usually nest on the ground or in disused nests in trees, though they have also been known to lay eggs on window ledges of large buildings. When nesting & incubating the eggs, most of the defence of the nest site is done mainly vocally, rather than by attacking. Their breeding season starts in July and lasts until late January or early February (as they live in the Southern Hemisphere, this corresponds to late winter/early summer breeding seasons of the owls in the Northern Hemisphere). 2 to 4 eggs are normally laid, and the female does all of the incubation, rarely leaving the nest, except to feed on prey brought to it by the male. Incubation takes around 30 to 32 days. At around 7 weeks from hatching, the young are able to fly competently, often following their parents calling loudly for food. The young are dependant on their parents for up to 5 weeks after learning to fly.

Given sufficient food in their territory, Spotted Eagle Owls may start breeding at 1 year old. As with all of the birds of prey, they suffer fairly high mortality rates in their first year of life, but if they survive that first year, then they are likely to live around 11-12 years in the wild.. Spotted Eagle Owls do not have a tendency to avoid populated areas, and many of their deaths are as a consequence. Quite a lot of their hunting is done by the sides of roads & many are killed by collisions with vehicles. Another cause of deaths is flying into, or becoming trapped by, fences & overhead cables. But by far the largest cause of deaths of Spotted Eagle Owls in Africa is pesticides, many of which are banned in Europe and America, such as DDT. Their natural predators include amongst other things, is the Osprey.

Indian Scops Owl
- Otus lettia


Small to medium sized owl, with distinctive ear tufts. Upper-parts light sandy brown marked with black and buff, under-parts grey (gray) or rufous buff, with darker arrowhead streaks and fine vermiculations. Distinct pale collar, and dark eyes.

References: Wikipedia, Shruti Ravindran in Outlook, www.aranya@auroville.org.in, www.birding.in, www.owlpages.com

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1 Response to “Vanishing Species – Indian Owls”


  1. 1 anandnewscafe May 10, 2009 at 5:57 am

    Thanks for this very informative post on Owls. I’ve seen an owl only once in my life, and it was at about 3 AM in the morning. I had to rise early to complete some urgent work, and I thought that it would be good idea to go out to the terrace – the breeze could help open my eyes – when I did open my eyes, I saw a beautiful owl perched at the corner of my neighbors roof. We checked each other out. He (or she) didn’t mind my staring at her – After five minutes, I went inside, made a cup of tea for myself and returned to the terrace – the owl was still there. So we sat quietly while I finished my tea and went inside to work.

    The next night, I set my alarm to 3:00 AM, hoping to meet my avian friend again – but in vain. I tried again the next night – then gave up:-(

    Regards,
    Anand


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