Thanks to misplaced myths and religious beliefs, the owl is poached, traded and sacrificed during the festive season

Do you know what a group of owls is called? Parliament! The phrase was probably coined by a wise old British who observed plenty of people in parliament behaving as the species do. Often referred to as ominous by some and wise by others, these winged professionals of the dark have been misunderstood by human beings. Age-old beliefs, unfortunately do not get blown away over time, instead they only get enhanced and amplified, thereby giving owls a bad name.

September and November, particularly the days preceding the Dussehra and Deepavali festivals, are terrible for these nocturnal creatures. During this period owl trade is rampant, with the birds being sold at a premium in illicit bazaars. Outdated religious beliefs, black magic practices and fake advice by soothsayers raise the association of owls as part of religious rituals.

Dr. Surya Prakash from Delhi University specialising in wildlife says, “During Kali Puja, business communities in Bengal sacrifice owls to gain wealth. Apparently the cost of each owl varies from a mere Rs. 50 to Rs. 70,000 during the festival season. A tantric usually slits the throat of an owl, and offers prayers and mantras to appease the gods. Hence, as a birdwatcher, I never disclose breeding and sleeping locations of owls as they are targeted by poachers. While on one hand the owl is considered an auspicious vehicle of Lakshmi — the goddess of wealth, on the other, people sacrifice them. I have, on occasions, rescued owls that have been trapped for unscrupulous activities.”

Owls rule the dark nights like unseen knights armed with special skills. Twilight zones are happy hours for owls as they are out to hunt after a day-long snooze in secluded spots. One of India’s common owls is the spotted owlet which is an ace at camouflaging. Found in almost all parts of the country, owls do a valuable service to humankind. These efficient hunters eradicate disease-spreading rodents that are found in and around human habitation.

Fortunately, to stop fast breeding of rodents we have a variety of owls residing close to human habitation and playing a pivotal role in protecting us from diseases and save food grains stored in houses and granaries. It is estimated that almost 30 per cent of agricultural produce in the country is lost to the marauding rats.

Owls fortunately provide a free service of eradicating rodents for human beings. Around 30 varieties of owls are found in India all of which are equipped with glaring eyes with a dash of bright yellow. They have sharp vision with eyeballs placed in a front facing head to specifically scan and “peel” open even inky nights to find rats, lizards and snakes. These erudite eyes of the owl have stereoscopic visualisation for nocturnal ambush.

Owls spend the day in hollow tree trunks, abandoned houses and ruins, concealed from prying eyes of humans. Heavily dotted and mottled with brown markings, owls perfectly merge with their surroundings. While stalking prey, owls position themselves cleverly in spots where they become part of the background to surprise their victims. Taking off from these launch pads, they silently soar down —unblinking eyes targeted at the prey with precision and focus. Stealth is the key factor in the darkness and the sharp talons lock on to its victim with hook-like claws. If there is a young brood to be fed, then all the rats better scurry, because the owl will hunt again and again until the young are content with bellyful of food.

Myths and mythology has several concocted stories to offer about the nocturnal habits of owls. Unblinking eyes, bobbing head, staring stance, a unique head that rotates 180 degrees without moving their body are some of the “amusing” features of owls. Because of these strange attributes and attitudes, owls have been associated with bad omens. Fact and fiction gets merged because we do understand the real world of owls.