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Hunters on the wing

When you hear the deep bass hooting of an owl, you can rest assured that all is well, says RANJIT LAL.

The Barn owl ... a cosmopolitan species.

LIKE with so many other living creatures, our attitude towards them has been schizophrenic. Owls are wise we say — so wise that the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athene, was represented by an owl, and even today, a family of owls bears her name. (Of which our own spotted owlet, Athene brama, is a member). Owls are malevolent, we also say — birds of the occult and supernatural — the consort of witches and demons, and are hunted by sorcerers and quacks even now, who say their body parts have magical and medicinal value. In truth, owls are magnificent birds, hunters of the dark that keep dangerous rodent populations well in check. A single eagle-owl can dispatch 350 rats a year, and when you think of the breeding potential of 350 rats in a year — we're talking big numbers.

Of the approximately 135 species of owls in the world (including the barn owls), 29 are found in Indian limits, ranging from the tiny (sparrow sized) pygmy owl to the great eagle-owl, and the recently rediscovered (and threatened) forest owlet. And what makes us so frightened of them are their great all-seeing golden (or lava coloured) eyes, that stare us down; the way in which they rotate their heads three quarters around and can stare us down back to front as it were; the horn like tufts of the heads of some species (the purpose of which is unknown, perhaps only to give us the frights!), and their unearthly shrieks and screeches and resonant booming hoots that can make our blood run cold, especially on moonlit nights in desolate places. All of which comprise parts of the owls' specialised hunting regalia.

When you hunt at twilight or in the dark you need extraordinary vision. Owls can see as well at night as we can by day. Their colossal eyes, fixed in their sockets, are 35 to 100 times as sensitive to light as ours are. Sometimes of course, it is simply too dark to see anything at all, so some owls have ears so sharp they can pinpoint the position of a vole nibbling a blade of frozen grass one foot under the snow. Especially sensitive to high pitched squeaks and rustles of rodents on the move, some owls — like the barn owl — hunt entirely by ear. Their ruff-bordered facial discs act like sound booms, reflecting squeaks to their large asymmetrical ears — which enable them to home in on the source of the sound with bulls-eye accuracy. Of course, in order to hunt by sound you must make no noise yourself and the flight feathers of owls are covered with a soft pelt that completely absorbs the whooshing of air through beating wings. It is an uncanny experience to watch a barn owl fly to within three or four metres of you and hear nothing. It's rather like watching a silent movie; for the rodent, it is deadly and the creature has not the slightest warning of death swiftly approaching in the dark.

The actual killing weapons are the needle-sharp grappling iron talons, and prey is gulped down whole to be digested by powerful stomach juices. Indigestible matter like fur and bones are neatly regurgitated in the form of pellets.

In the dark, and when you are dressed in browns, beiges and greys, it is easier to keep in touch by sound — whether it is to warn others away from claimed hunting blocks, or to attract members of the opposite sex. Hence, the weird repertoire of shrieks, screams, screeches and deep resonant hoots that (like a ship's foghorn) travel far, even in thickly foliaged and wooded areas. In some species, the calls of the male and female are different and they play soft (romantic) duets to each other.

A Malay Fish owl at the Jurong Bird Park, Singapore.

Owls usually nest in holes in tree-trunks or crevices in rocks, and lay between one and eleven (usually white) eggs. The number of chicks raised successfully usually depends on the population of rats (and other rodents and insects) in the area.

In India, our most familiar owl is the spotted owlet, a regular inhabitant of large trees in gardens and parks and avenues, even in big cities. This dumpy little brown owl, with its icing sugar spots, can sometimes be seen perched on street lights, snapping up the moths that whirl around them dementedly. The barn owl too — a cosmopolitan species in the global sense — is another established city dweller, though now perhaps, some cities are proving to be too inhospitable to it. I was delighted to hear, a couple of years ago, that barn owls had taken to peering into bedroom windows of flats in East Delhi, giving the incumbents the willies no doubt! A family of barn owls lived in the Qudsia gardens next door in an old gulmohur tree and I will never forget the sight of the three woolly youngsters standing one virtually on top of the other, doing complicated callisthenics with their necks and heads, while round the corner, at the main entrance to their hollow, their parents indulged in a passionate smooching session. Barn owls have suffered the consequences of pesticide poisoning, which is ironical, as they are rat catchers par excellence in their own right. Delhi's most magnificent owl has to be the great horned owl, a family of which has lived in the famous "canyon" in the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University for many years. (I haven't visited them lately so do not know their current status).

And yes, in spite of their glowering looks and fierce demeanor, owls can be endearing. In northern California, I was privileged to meet a colony of burrowing owls — diurnal owls that live almost communally, in the burrows of ground squirrels, and who enjoy a delightfully Californian life style too. Free love is very much the in thing with them, and both the male and female in an apparently stable nuclear family will happily commit adultery given the opportunity. The burrows lie cheek by jowl, so it is really no problem nipping in next door for a cozy canoodle with the sweet little thing (or hunky beefcake) there. One in every five chicks is a love-child, and even the baby owlets will happily wander into the burrow next door and be adopted by that family.

When you get back from a walk in the woods or countryside at dusk, and hear the deep bass "WO-wo-wo-o-o-o" of the dusky horned owl, you know that all is well and that the night shift has made its claim. No death has been portended, no evil will be done and there is nothing to fear.

Not unless you're a rat of course.

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