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The Enigma of the Forest Owlet By Prachi Mehta

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

A ghost from the past

The Forest Owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) is a curious bird, both by name and nature. It has captured the imagination of many within and outside the country and for the right reasons.

The forest owlet has an interesting past associated with it. Let us travel back in time to the 19th century. It was in 1872 when an Irish officer, Mr. Francis Robert Blewitt (F. R. Blewitt) saw this different looking owl in Phooljar area in eastern Madhya Pradesh (now in Chhattisgarh). Perplexed by its somewhat confusing appearance, he sent the specimen to Mr. A.O. Hume, a well-known taxonomist and a civil servant in India. Hume immediately recognized this owl as a new species for science and named it after Blewitt to acknowledge his contribution to Indian ornithology. Interestingly, recent literature mentions that the bird was originally collected by Mr. William Blewitt, who was F.R. Blewitt’s younger brother. William Blewitt was a custom officer in Punjab so he decided to use the pseudonym of his elder brother to avoid his boss’s wrath for spending time away from his office in Punjab for collecting birds in Central India ! However, for us it is a Blewitt’s owl after all.

The Genus of forest owlet is another issue of recent contention. At the time of its discovery in 1872, Hume established the genus Heteroglaux for the forest owlet based on its distinct morphology. Although the forest owlet possesses superficial similarity with the spotted owlet Athene brama, it is distinctly different. The unspotted crown, presence of full throat collar, thickly feathered legs, its lateral tail flicking habit and undulating flight are some of the most visible characteristics that made the taxonomists dedicate a unique genus, Heteroglaux for a single species! Scientists are still undecided about the correct genus for the forest owlet. The ongoing molecular research on the phylogeny of the bird will be able to settle the long-standing query whether the forest owlet can continue being Heteroglaux or should be included in Athene! It is a serious case of identity crisis.

The story of its apparent extinction and rediscovery is equally dramatic. Between 1872 and 1884, six forest owlets was collected from the country: the first one in 1872 by Blewitt, second one in 1877 by Mr. Valentine Ball from Orissa and four more during 1880-1883 by Mr. James Davidson from Central Maharashtra. After 1884, there were many report of forest owlet from various places in the country but all of them were cases of mistaken identity with that of the spotted In 1961, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen reported having collected a forest owlet way back in 1914 from Mandvi in Gujarat thus extending its range further west. One again intensive search was conducted for the forest owlet all over the country but it was unsuccessful. Finally in 1972, Dr. S.D Ripley considered the possibility that the forest owlet may have been extinct from India. So the Blewitt’s Owl got famous as a possibly extinct species.

Given this background, one can imagine the surprise and excitement that was generated at the news of its rediscovery in 1997. The forest owlet made its reappearance after 113 long years in Indian ornithology and that revamped people’s curiosity in the bird. It was rediscovered by Dr. Pamela Rasmussen, a scientist from USA. Dr. Rasmussen who had examined the preserved skins of forest owlet realized that the bird looked very different than the illustrations in Indian bird books and decided to survey the historical locations to look for the bird. She found two birds from Taloda Reserve Forests of Maharashtra. Her museum research also found out that the record of forest owlet from Gujarat was a false one as Col. Meinertzhagen had stolen one specimen from Davidson’s collection and claimed it as his own! So much fuss and fraud over an owl!

Present status

After its rediscovery, BNHS and other organizations carried out surveys to determine the distribution of forest owlet in the country. BNHS reported two new sites of forest owlet in India: Khaknar Range in Burhanpur District of Madhya Pradesh and Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati District of Maharashtra. Our organization carried out the distribution survey in five central Indian states namely Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. We found the forest owlet in two new sites in Khandwa district and a few new locations within the Melghat Tiger Reserve.

Forest Owlet population in Burhanpur and Khandwa districts are found in the teak dominated Reserved Forests. Since Reserved Forests are non-protected forests, their management objectives are different. These forests are being managed for mainly for timber extraction under Selective Felling. The forest owlets inhabit teak forests and use tree cavities for nesting. It is therefore essential to understand how timber logging would impact the species.

In December 2012, WRCS in collaboration with Madhya Pradesh Forest Department initiated a long-term study on forest owlet in Khandwa district. The main focus of the study is to examine distribution, demography and ecology of forest owlet in logged forests of the area. The results of the study will be useful in answering basic questions about habitat selection, nesting, breeding, and dispersal pattern of the forest owlet. The study is being supported by Department of Science and Technology, MBZ species conservation fund and Raptor Research and Conservation Foundation (RRCF), Mumbai. This study has been completed in December 2017 and has generated useful information on conservation of the species.

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