The Bird of the Night By Prachi Mehta

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

All about owls

On a hot sultry March afternoon HariRam, my Korku field assistant and I were sitting under a mango tree savouring the fragrance of its flowers in a Central Indian Forest. Suddenly, Hari Ram sat up looking startled. Following his gaze, I saw a fuzzy white formwith four yellow circles staring fixedly at us from a hollow right above.They were two juveniles of the Indian Eagle Owl peeping out of the cavity.Even at that tender age, they appeared formidable with their hypnotic stare. Later Hari Ram confided in me grimly, “Didi, Aajjunglekichudail ne humedekhliyahai! Ab hum donojaldi hi mar jayenge! ” (Now that the forest witch has seen us, we both will die very soon! )Fortunately Hari Ram’s prophecy has not come true in the last 17 years but till date owls are considered as harbingers of death.


Owls inspire such fear because of their unconventional appearance and behaviour. With a round facial disc, oversized eyes, an ability to rotate its head and their uncanny vocalisation, owls are the undisputed candidate to play the role of abanshee. Apart from their trademark hoots and howls, they are capable of emitting guttural shrieks, mournful wails,rapacious laughter and death criesof a strangled woman! More often heard than seen, owls are therefore regarded as the spirit of the dead. Presence of bones and skulls of their prey around their roost sites provides a compelling evidence for the believers.


The 230 species of owls in the world are classified in two distinct families: the Tytonidae family includes the barn owls while all other owls belong to the Strigidae family which are considered to be true owls.


The world’s largest owl is the 84 cm tall Great Grey Strixnebulosafrom the Northern Hemisphere,whilethe smallest is the elf owl Micrathenewhitneyfrom South-western America, which is only 13 cm tall. Almost two-thirds of owl species are nocturnal or crepuscular while the remaining one third is diurnal.


India is home to 33 species of owls. The Eurasian Eagle OwlBubo bubohemachelana, found in northern India, is the largest, reaching up to 70 cm,while the smallest is the 15 cm tall collared pygmy owlet Glaucidiumbrodeifrom North and North-eastern India.Except the endemic Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti, all other owls in the country are nocturnal or crepuscular.


Super-specialised Owls

Owls are versatile birds. Except for Antarctica and some remote islands they are found everywhere on the earth.Although owls are considered to be birds of prey they are closely related to nocturnal Nightjars. Owls have earned the nocturnal niche with some remarkable adaptations that no other carnivorous birds possess.


Owls hunt in low light so they depend entirely on their eyesight and hearing to locate their prey. The pupils of their eyes open three times wider than the human eye and have largenumber of rod cells which can respond in dim light. Most birds have a transparent nictitating membrane but in the owls this membrane is opaque so bright light does not hurt their sensitive eyes. Most owls have a yellow to orange iris while a few have dark ones but the colour of iris has no relation with their time of hunting or the ability to see as it is often assumed. The ears of owls are positioned at different heights on either side of their head so they often tilt their head to judge the location of the sound.


Owls feed on rodents, shrews, reptiles, small birds, and insects. Like many other birds of prey owls swallow their prey whole but cannot store the food like other birds as they do not have a crop. Their food passes directly from the mouth to the gizzard where digestion takes place. The undigested remains such as the bones fur, feathers, and hair are regurgitated out of the mouth in a form of a pellet8 to 10 hours after feeding.The prey remains from the pellets provide valuable information on the owl’s diet and arelike fitting a jigsaw puzzle.


All birds make their own nests butagain owls are an exception to this. Owls generally lay their eggs in tree cavities and nests abandoned by other birds. Some owls nests on rocky platforms, window ledges and abandoned houses. In the Sonoran desert the Elf Owl and the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl Glaucidiumbrasilianumcactorum go that extra mile to nestin giant cacti!


Owls across the cultures

From ancient Greek mythology to the recent fantasy stories of Harry Potter, owls have been used to depict death, mystique, power, doom and wisdom. Owls are fearedand awed, revered and dreaded, conserved and hunted. No other birds have such paradoxical socio-cultural associations.


The Greek Goddess of wisdom, Athena, considered owls to be a symbol of power, victory and wisdom,while in ancient Rome, sighting an owl was a sign of an impending disaster. In some parts of England, owls are considered to bring imminent death while in other parts they were a sign of good fortune. Shakespeare used the owl to predict the dramatic death of Julius Caesar. “…..yesterday, the bird of night did sit Even at noonday, upon the market place, Hooting and shrieking" (From Julius Caesar by Shakespeare)

However, in many Western countries, owls have gained a positive profile owing to the awareness generated by the scientific community. Apart from making owls popular as wise and thoughtful, efforts are being made to protect their nest trees and habitat from degradation. Such a change would be most desirable in many Asian countries where even today owls are considered to be inauspicious and possessors of evil powers.


In India thousands of owls are captured and traded for all sorts of irrational uses. Since Laxmi the wealth Goddess rides on owls, many owls are captured during Diwali to welcome Laxmi at home.Owl eyes, tails, feathers, beaks, and talons are used in folk medicine for deriving good eye sight and treating ailments from arthritis to whooping cough! Owls are used extensively for black magic, using very cruel practices. Owls are made to perform on the streets to pick lucky draws and to predict fortunes-all at the cost of their own misfortune.

Owl trade is a punishable offence in India. In spite of this thousands of owls are captured and exported annually. The law may help in rescuing some of the captured owls but unless the deep rooted superstitious beliefs about owls are eradicated, they have little hopes of escaping from the sorcerer’s clutches. The increasing use of rodenticides by farmers is another serious issue of concern for the survival of owls.

In India, owls are known as ullus, which means foolish. Owls are not foolish. They have cleverly created an exclusive niche for themselves to hunt at night when all other birds sleep. Owls are not inauspicious. Owls provide immensely useful service to the farmers by feeding on rats and mice and ensure a good harvest. On the other hand owls cannot pick lucky numbers. Owls cannot cure ailments. They cannot predict death or doom.

We need the owls and the owls need us. Their survival is linked to elimination of irrational and acceptance of scientific attitude.Let us all make a collective effort to liberate the society of the false beliefs so that this enigmatic cat-headed eagle can fly fearlessly in the night.

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