Is a jackal’s howl a bad omen?

share this article

Canis aureus indicus is a cunning predator-cum-scavenger whose depredations bode ill not so much for humans as for unwary fowl.

If the Indian jackal’s howl is haunting, so are its eyes.

One night in the 1970s while making a trunk telephone call from a public booth in Munnar, a sudden burst of weird howling erupted nearby, startling me. It turned out to be a couple of jackals spiritedly communicating with each other across a stream. The prolonged, high-decibel powwow drowned my telephone conversation, ultimately forcing me to abandon the call midway. I had been literally and persistently howled down.

Local residents in Munnar and its environs are sometimes treated, willy-nilly, to such open-air nightly ‘recitals’ by jackals that haunt the vicinity of hotels and eateries in search of a morsel. The superstitious are known to regard their howling as ominous, portending misfortune and even death. However, what sounds like a protracted and eerie combination of screaming and yelping is actually the jackal’s mode of communicating with other members of its pack, raising its head skywards as it does so.

The Indian jackal (Canis aureus indicus) is also known as the common jackal, Asiatic jackal, Himalayan jackal or Golden jackal. The last-mentioned name aptly describes its mostly tawny coat and light-coloured underparts. Indeed, it looks something like a cross between an Alsatian and a fox, sporting a fox’s small pointed face, delicate legs and fluffy tail along with an Alsatian’s long, erect and alert ears.

The jackal’s body length varies from 70 to 80 cm. and it grows up to 40 cm. at the shoulder, its weight being between 8 to 11 kg. The males are larger than the females and both are equipped with svelte bodies and long legs designed to pursue prey. The jackal also has a very keen sense of hearing to detect the movement of prey as well as to steer clear of humans.

The gestation period is as short as nine weeks with three to six pups being born in a single litter, usually in dense shrubbery or a rocky cave. The jackal has a lifespan of 14-16 years and is found in evergreen forests, grasslands, semi-urban and rural areas. In the hills of Munnar it is found at altitudes of up to 2,000 metres, being often sighted deep inside the Eravikulam National Park.

 

 

An omnivore, the jackal feeds on small mammals, hares, fish, birds, insects and fruit. It shows a marked preference for domestic poultry which it finds far easier to prey on than the ever-vigilant grey jungle fowl which more often than not gives it the slip. The jackal usually hunts alone or in pairs and is both diurnal as well as nocturnal in its habits. In Munnar it tends to be crepuscular too — more active at dawn and dusk.

Strolling through a tea field, I was once singularly fortunate to chance upon a jackal stalking a covey of jungle fowl foraging in a ravine below me. I watched, enthralled, as the predator flattened itself against the ground and inched forward, eyes riveted on its prey. It was the epitome of cunning and caution. Then, just as the jackal readied itself to pounce on the quarry, the ever-alert cock sensed the imminent danger without actually seeing it and scurried away in panic followed by its harem. The hapless jackal looked so crestfallen I could almost empathise with it. The incident brought home to me the truism that in the wilds eternal vigilance is the price of survival.

Perhaps due to the superstitions widely associated with its outlandish howling, the jackal is often despised and looked down upon as a scavenger, scrounging on the ‘kills’ of the tiger, leopard and wild dog when these predators are not around. This commensal relationship sees it through lean periods when food is scarce or when it is incapacitated by the infirmities of old age.

Like the tiger, the jackal is believed to be a territorial animal that marks and defends its territory fiercely against intruders. The marking, apparently, is done with its urine and faeces.

The jackal is fairly widespread in India. A conservative estimate puts its population in the country at around 80,000. As such, the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) has classified its conservation status as being of “Least concern”. However, various studies are believed to show that the jackal’s numbers are decreasing in habitats outside the protected areas like sanctuaries and national parks, mainly due to large-scale urbanisation and industrialisation of rural areas.

As a brazen poultry-killer or -lifter, the jackal has few equals in Munnar and its environs. Shy and stealthy, it slinks around at night to raid insecure coops or fowl runs, even going to the extent of burrowing under wire-mesh fencing to gain access. In the process, the jackal sometimes displays uncommon resourcefulness and cunning.

 

Given its marked preference for poultry, the jackal is often poisoned with insecticide-laced bait. Sometimes, it is also hunted for its pelt and tail. The latter is usually foisted on unsuspecting buyers as a fox’s tail, which is much prized as a lucky charm.

 

In the 1960s, a poultry farmer in Vattavada, a remote hamlet about 40 km from Munnar, narrated an incident that amply illustrates this point. He had been losing fowls regularly to jackals, so much so that he was obliged to keep watch over his coop even during the day. One morning, as he stood guard with his muzzle-loader he espied a jackal snooping around in front of his homestead, all the while staying out of range of his gun. The jackal engaged his attention for quite some time. Then, suddenly he heard a telltale commotion in his backyard and rushed there to find another jackal fleeing with a squawking hen clamped between its jaws. He was convinced that the duo had been working in tandem — if not in collusion!

Working in a tea estate near Munnar in the 1960s, a colleague and I tried to raise poultry for our personal use. However, we had to call it off within three months as we regularly lost full-grown roosters and hens to the depredations of jackals at night as well as during the day when the fowls were out foraging. In fact, in one single week the audacious raiders accounted for no less than five hens.

Given its marked preference for poultry, the jackal is often poisoned with insecticide-laced bait. Sometimes, it is also hunted for its pelt and tail. The latter is usually foisted on unsuspecting buyers as a fox’s tail, which is much prized as a lucky charm.

Unsurprisingly, the jackal is highly distrustful of humans, always slinking away to a safe distance when confronted unexpectedly. Its only known predators in the wild are the hyena and the leopard as well as perhaps the crocodile. The jackal, incidentally, is known to spread rabies, being a confirmed transmitter of the deadly virus. In Munnar and the neighbouring tea gardens, it is often sighted foraging for offal near abattoirs where it gets into scuffles with local mongrels — a very likely route for transmission of the rabies virus to humans.

A veteran British tea-planter, knowledgeable about wildlife, once observed in a lighter vein, “A jackal’s howl sometimes precedes its prowl for an unwary fowl.” In that context perhaps the howling of a jackal may indeed be ominous for poultry, but certainly not for humans!

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor