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 near Phooljhar 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 British taxonomist and a civil service officer serving in India. Hume immediately recognized this owl as a new species for science and named it after Blewitt. 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 customs 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 still Blewitt’s owl.
The Forest Owlet is endemic to India, that is, it is not found anywhere outside India. This small sized owlet has been placed among the top seventeen birds in the world that are in the endangered category. The International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared it as a Critically Endangered species owing to its small and declining population.
The Genus of the 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 to the much commonly seen Spotted Owlet (Athene brama), it has several distinctive features that distinguish it from the spotted owlet. The forest owlet has an unspotted crown, presence of full throat collar, and thickly feathered legs; its lateral tail flicking habit and undulating flight are among the most visible characteristics that made taxonomists create a unique genus, Heteroglaux, for a single species! Scientists are still undecided about the correct genus of the forest owlet. The ongoing molecular research on the phylogeny of the bird will help settle the long-standing dispute on the taxonomy of the forest owlet! Till then it is a serious case of identity crisis!
A Ghost from the Past
The story of its apparent extinction and rediscovery is equally dramatic. Between 1872 and 1884, six forest owlet specimens were collected from the country; the first one in 1872 by Blewitt as mentioned earlier. second one in 1877 by Mr. Valentine Ball from Orissa (Odisha) and four more during 1880-1883 by Mr. James Davidson from Central Maharashtra. After 1884, there were many reports of forest owlet sightings all over the country but all of them were cases of mistaken identity with that of the spotted owlet. 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. Once again an intensive search was carried out for the forest owlet all over the country but it drew a blank. Finally, in 1972, Dr. S.Dillon Ripley considered the possibility that the forest owlet may have become extinct. So the Blewitt’s owl became known as a possibly extinct species in India.
Given this background, one can imagine the surprise and excitement that was generated by the news of its rediscovery in 1997. Dr. Pamela Rasmussen, an American ornithologist was studying the preserved skins of forest owlet. She realized that the bird looked very different from those shown in the illustrations in Indian bird books, and that Indian scientists were looking for it based on a wrong picture of its appearance. Her museum research also found 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! Dr. Rasmussen and her team decided to carry out a survey of the bird at its historical locations In India. They started with a search in Odisha and Chhattisgarh where the erstwhile forests had disappeared giving way to crop fields. They could not locate any forest owlet there. In November 1997, they started a survey in Maharashtra near Nandurbar district and much to everyone’s surprise, they found two forest owlets. Thus the forest owlet made its reappearance after 113 long years!! The bird was not extinct – it was overlooked by so many for so many years. The rediscovery renewed renewed the interest of scientists and naturalists in the forest owlet in India.
Present Status of the Forest Owlet in India
After its rediscovery several organizations carried out surveys to determine the distribution of the forest owlet. The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) initiated the surveys in 1999 and reported the presence of forest owlet from North-western Maharashtra and Melghat Tiger Reserve. Our organization, the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society (WRCS) also carried out a survey of the forest owlet in five central Indian states from which they were originally known to be present. We surveyed the states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Our surveys were successful in locating the forest owlets from Khandwa and Betul district in Madhya Pradesh and a few more locations in Northern Maharashtra. Just when it began to appear that the forest owlet is confined to dry deciduous teak forests in Central India, it threw another surprise. In 2014, Mr. Sunil Laad of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) stumbled upon the forest owlet from moist deciduous teak forests in Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary, just outside the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, making it a very first record of the species from the Western Ghats. Soon after, there was a record of sighting the forest owlet from Purna Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, again from the northern Western Ghats. At present the Forest Owlet is known from three states in India; Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.
From 2012 onwards, we are carrying out an ecological assessment of the forest owlet in Madhya Pradesh with the support of Department of Science and Technology and Raptor Research and Conservation Foundation (RRCF), Mumbai. We are trying to understand the possible reasons for localized distribution of the forest owlet in Central India, its small population, and why it has not been able to colonize as successfully as its sympatric species, the spotted owlet. The forest owlet appears to have low breeding success as each year there are only 1 or 2 juveniles emerging out of 6 to 7 nests, while the spotted owlets that share the same habitat have a higher survival rate. The mystery of the forest owlet’s life remains to be unraveled. Meanwhile, the study has provided valuable insights in strategies owls have adapted for survival and how thoughtlessly we destroy them out of personal insecurities and irrational beliefs.
There are 230 species of owls in the world, of which 33 species are found within India. However, in India, owls still have a long way to go before they make it on the official priority list of species that need extra protection. Owls provide an immensely useful ecological service by feeding on rodents. One owl can feed on 1000 mice in a year, which would otherwise damage 1/3rd of the grain in a crop field. In some regions of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, farmers install a pole in their field for the owls to perch and hunt out the rodents. The owl is considered to be the vehicle of the Goddess Laxmi. In some areas, farmers believe that worshipping owls will bring wealth in their lives.
But in most other places, owls are not so lucky. The magnificence of owls are misinterpreted in many cultures across the world, including India. Though owls show their wisdom by selecting a nocturnal niche to avoid competition with other birds, they are considered to be stupid and foolish (ullu) for some bizarre reasons. Owls are considered to be inauspicious and messengers of death because they fly at night! They are considered evil because of their unconventional appearance. Owls are like the golden goose for sorcerers. They are kept in cages where their powerful wings and talons are severed so they can’t fly, their eyes are injected with colored dye to make them appear formidable and finally made to perform on the diktats of the owner as an evil and malicious power.
Owls are also killed for using their powerful eyes, talons, beaks, tails, and feathers for gaining the prowess of owls in fake traditional medicines. If owls possessed such super powers, they will not get caught and killed so easily! Eggs and chicks of owls are stolen from the nests for gambling and earning a quick buck. Every year during the Deepavali Festival, owls are captured in large numbers for trade and for gambling.
Owls help to maintain the balance of ecosystems by occupying a nocturnal niche. Owls exploit nocturnal prey at night, which would otherwise proliferate and may damage the ecosystem. Owls keep the populations of destructive rodents under natural control and thus provide the farmers with a prosperous harvest.
- While owls are considered as harbingers of death, in reality it is the other way round! Our actions are responsible for indiscriminate owl mortalities.
- Many owls hunt by the roadside and are frequently killed by speeding vehicles.
- Many owls roost and nest in snags, tree cavities and tree hollows. Under forestry operations, many such trees are felled for the purpose of improvement of forest stock. This can seriously impact the availability of suitable nest and roost site for the owls.
- Rodents form a major part of the owl’s diet. However, use of rodenticides by farmers can cause a serious threat to survival of owls in the area.
- Owl eggs are used for gambling. Owl chicks and adults are captured for use in black magic, fake medicines and trade in body parts.
To address the issues above, it is important to generate awareness at various levels. In our ongoing forest owlet conservation work, the following measures are being initiated:
- In areas where frequent owl roadkills are found, a proposal for installation of speed breakers has been sent to Highway authorities.
- Public awareness posters with catchy slogans in the local language have been displayed by the roadside.
- Working closely with forest officers and field staff has resulted in generating awareness on identifying owl nest-roost trees and exemption of important trees from forestry operations where required.
- Involving farmers as custodians of owl nest trees in their own farms.
- Popularizing owl conservation through owl guide books, local folklore and street plays.