Hooting in Chennai with the barn owl

Not a rare bird, but rarely seen.

Not a rare bird, but rarely seen.  

IN RECENT weeks, the city has been witness to a spate of "rescues" involving the monkey-faced barn owl. The last of the rescues took place on December 19 when this bird unwittingly infiltrated the Government Estate (Rajaji Hall) on Anna Salai.

In its reports of the "rescues," the media has been repeatedly referring to the barn owl as an exotic migratory bird. This notion is as far-fetched as it is common, say experts. The truth is the barn owl is very much part of the Indian territory. The owl is spread across the country, without any let-up.

In the Indian context the barn owl may not be a rare bird, but it is rarely seen. It is blessed with an uncanny ability for making itself as discreet as a thief. It occupies structures that are of little use to man or beast. If you trawl dilapidated buildings and deserted forts, you sure will find this bird. Peering into the hollows of trees, you may come face to face with this wraithlike creature. There is a theory that barns are among its preferred nesting places and that it derives its name from this proclivity.

The barn owl has a taste only for rats and mice; rarely does it zero in on any other small animal. It has its eyes peeled for these rodents when night falls. Thanks to this predilection, it sometimes ventures into places that are thick with human presence. This factor is a blessing for birdwatchers, as it ensures that they set eyes on this owl, which is as beautiful as it is eerie.

The barn owl's nomenclature in Malayalam, veli moonga (fence owl) is indicative of its greater proximity to human habitation than generally presumed. In Tamil Nadu, the barn owl has a name and a reputation that it would like to live down. It is sometimes called chavu kuruvi (bird of death). This comes as no surprise when you are put in view of the fact that in most parts of the world owls are looked upon as portents of ill-luck. Their calls are feared and their sight even more so. Though we have no perceivable reason to regard the barn owl as a "symbol of death," we have a good reason to see them as an "unpaid pest control agent." For, they get rid of the harbingers of disease and death - rats and mice.

When dawn breaks, this nocturnal bird turns into an impossible sluggard. It idles the day away, by alternating a cosy snooze with restless calls. Another misconception that shadows owls is their call. Not all owls hoot softly. Some owls screech and scream their heads off, setting your teeth on edge and jangling your nerves.

If you listen with your ears pinned back, you will realise that each owl has its own peculiar call. The barn owl's call is distinguished by a screech that has shades of a wheeze. The wheeze can remind an imaginative person of the hard breathing of a hopelessly enervated old man who is recumbent on his death bed.

By Prince Frederick Photo: S. Thanthoni

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