It was a pleasant morning. Winter was receding, and the trees had started shedding leaves. I was walking in the Central Avenue of Jamshedpur and stopped abruptly in front of a bare tree. There were two spotted owlets ( Athene brama, named after Athena, the ancient Greek Goddess of wisdom, and Brahma, the Indian god of creations) huddled together and a third peeping from an adjacent hole in the tree. The peeping owl seemed equally surprised to see me.
Thrusting its head forward and rotating it like the seconds hand on a clock, the bird looked at me and then flew away. I felt guilty for frightening it and hid behind the tree trunk to watch the other two. After a while, one of them turned its head all the way back and stared. Sensing peace, the bird turned back and huddled closer to its partner. The amazing display of the neck movement made me marvel at the anatomy of the owl’s neck.
In humans, especially the elderly, dizziness while turning the head or looking up is a common symptom. It is attributed to the limited flexibility of our neck and blood vessels that pass through tight-fit bony canals. Be it a human, a small mouse or a tall giraffe, there are just seven cervical vertebrae in the necks of almost all the mammals. But birds have 13 to 25 vertebrae and can easily bend their necks like a flexible portable clip-on reading light. An owl has 14 cervical vertebrae and can turn its head to 270 degrees in either direction. The rotation is aided by its skull resting on a single groove in the first vertebra. Blood vessels in the neck of an owl do not get pinched with extreme rotation because they are a “loose fit” in the bony canals and can expand up to 10 times when additional blood flows from the reservoirs in its neck. In the human neck, the arteries are a “tight fit” and are likely to get impinged by bony growths from spondylitis. Owls have extensive connections between the arterial systems in the head. The absence of all these safety mechanisms make human beings prone to stroke from a lack of blood supply. Flexible neck and a well-perfused brain are necessities for owls since they have fixed tubular eyes, like binoculars. We can move our eyeballs but an owl needs to rotate its entire head to scan the surroundings. Owls have excellent night vision and hunt mostly for rodents. But poor vision in daylight exposes the owl to get mobbed by other birds. Just the other day a barn owl ( Tyto alba — tyto in Greek means night owl and the Latin word alba means white) quietly flew into my balcony. My housemaid was excited and told me, “ Ullu Lekshmi ji ka vahan hai. Achha shagun hai (Owl is the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi; it’s a good omen).” As I was admiring the big brown bird with a heart-shaped face, it was chased away by two crows. Owls are associated with myths, magic and superstitions, not only in India but in all cultures. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter has rekindled an interest in magic and owls.
Owls cannot be kept as pets. Capturing and trading in protected wildlife is a punishable offence. But owls are still captured, caged, sold for black magic and even sacrificed during festivals such as Deepavali. While these practices are based on superstitions, there is an emerging threat from “educated” bird photographers. Eager to locate the bird and get a perfect shot, some of them play bird calls and flash bright lights. Such disturbances confuse the bird and make it fly, and the photographer gets a bird-in-flight picture! Owls need protection by raising public awareness of their role in nature, dispelling superstitions and practising bird-friendly behaviour.
Spotted owlets and barn owls have adjusted to live near human dwellings and help by controlling rodents. They are rightly known as farmers’ friends. Another 33 species of owls in India that live in forests also help to maintain a balance in nature. It is time that we respect nature and learn to ‘live and let live’.