The Indian eagle-owl was classified as a species only in recent years, thus distinguishing it from the Eurasian eagle-owl. The Indian species is an imposing bird. The slightly larger female can reach a total length of two and a half feet, with a wingspan of six feet. Prominent ear tufts that look like horns are seen to project from its head. One theory holds that these have evolved to impart a threatening look that keeps away predators. If so, the horns are indeed successful at imparting an aura of menace.
Its nocturnal habits have meant that very little is known about this bird. The widespread range — the entire Indian peninsula — would seem to indicate that it is a stable population. But nobody knows for sure, as it is not a very common bird. Their total numbers have never been estimated. Many bird species face decline today as the total forested area in our country has suffered a decline. But the Indian eagle-owl does not have a dependency on forests. The regular items on their menu, such as rats, bandicoots, and even bats and doves are best hunted over open scrubland and agricultural tracts. Nearby rocky perches and crags provide ideal settings for its nests.
Near human settlements, they prefer mango trees. In rural India, many superstitions surround this bird and its loud double-hoot calls. They are considered bearers of ill omens. The noted ornithologist Salim Ali documented folklore in which an eagle-owl, when trapped and starved, would speak in a human voice and portend the future of its listeners.
This is in line with myths in many cultures, ranging from the Greeks to the Aztecs, of the presaging powers of owls in general. In some they foretold victories in battles, in others they warned of approaching dangers. But then we also identify them with wisdom. The Goddess Lakshmi’s Uluka is an emblem of knowledge and prosperity.
The negative superstitions associated with the Indian eagle-owl make us reflect on its ferocious defensive tactics in nesting areas. The nest, with up to four eggs, is often no more than a scratched out hollow, easily approached by a mongoose or a human. These owls show heckling behaviour, and will swoop down on the intruding person, striking the head from behind with its talons.
Benefits to agriculture
Farmers definitely profit from the presence of this owl. Research done by the Ela Foundation and the Zoological Survey of India has shown that Indian eagle-owls nesting near agricultural lands had more, and healthier, owlets than scrubland nesters. The former benefited from the abundant populations of rodents near farms.
What lies ahead for these owls? India has seen growing interest in our birds. Birding, as the hobby is called, attracts more and more enthusiastic volunteers, who add data to bird counts, surveys and migration maps. But these are mostly daytime activities in which owls are always under-represented. It is hoped that nocturnal birds such as the Indian eagle-owl will have their day too.
(The article was written in collaboration with Sushil Chandani, who works in molecular modelling. )