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The return of the forest owlet

The forest owlet has an uncanny resemblance to the more common spotted owlet. Photo: Prachi Mehta

Prachi Mehta was always fascinated by owls. When she was a student of wildlife biology in 1997, birders spotted a forest owlet perched on a bare teak tree in northwestern Maharashtra. The news sent the birding world into a tizzy. Although the species doesn’t lurk in the dark nor frequent remote mountain valleys, it had dodged ornithologists for more than a hundred years.

Mehta saw her first forest owlet almost a decade after it had been discovered again. The small bird, about half the size of a house crow, was asleep on a leafless teak tree in Melghat Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra.

The forest owlet has an uncanny resemblance to the more common spotted owlet that inhabits many a backyard across India. But its white belly shining in the bright morning sun immediately sets the bird apart. Unlike most other owls, this species hunts during the day, when it is visible and exposed to assaults by others. Every bird, from tits to treepies, mobs this diminutive predator, and large raptors make a meal of it.

Unnerving look

The researcher and her field assistant took in the rare bird’s broad head, powerful talons, and its beak covered with the dry blood of its last victim. Sensing their eyes on it, the bird opened one eye and then the other, and bobbed its head from side to side like a cat.

“In fact, owls are cats with wings,” she says. “They have a similar unnerving look.”

After confirming the humans were merely being curious, it closed its eyes and went back to sleep. That moment when it had peered at them with wide-eyed innocence melted her heart.

“Owls are not beautiful in the traditional sense as peacocks are, but they look very human.”

Over the following years, Mehta would trek through forests of Central India, from Odisha to Gujarat, locating the forest owlet in previously unknown locations. The species isn’t found in any other country.

Restricted area

Back in the 1870s and 1880s, the earliest reports suggested it wasn’t a common bird. Today, it has forsaken many of its former haunts in Odisha and Chattisgarh, harried by logging and encroachments. It remains restricted to a narrow belt, extending about 650 kilometres along Maharashtra’s northern border with Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, where it is known as ran pingada in Marathi and dooda in Korku, the dialect of the Korku indigenous community in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Even along this strip, the owlet is relegated to scattered patches, hunting insects, reptiles, and mice in the neighbouring fields.

“Its ability to hunt in agricultural areas gives a false impression that it is adaptable, that it doesn’t need forests,” says Mehta.

She cites an incident as an example of why dense jungles are essential for the bird’s survival.

Mehta had come upon a forest owlet family and marvelled at two youngsters huddled close to a parent in the soft glowing evening light. The other parent, presumably the father, arrived and offered a mouse to his mate. She transferred it to a chick which bolted it down whole. An eagle owl disturbed this domestic tranquillity when it glided overhead. The young birds scrambled for a hiding place, but they had outgrown their nest hole. They cowered in fright until the danger passed. Two days later, however, Mehta noticed a scattering of feathers, the only remains of the fledglings, under the tree. They had become prey, after all.

“Tree cavities are very important as refuges for the species,” says Mehta. “The forest owlet might find food near human settlements, but such areas don’t have old trees with hollows of the right size.”

The earlier instance of the species being lost-and-found may have been due to birders’ inability to spot it. If it disappears again, looking harder will not resurrect the forest owlet.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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Printable version | May 11, 2022 11:50:43 am |