THE NIGHT BIRD
In this article, the author explains how the special characteristics of owls have made them the culprit in the eyes of the humans. She also mentions how these beliefs have been passed on to generations in the form of mythological stories.
On a hot sultry March afternoon, my Korku field assistant Hari Ram and I were sitting under a mango tree savoring the fragrance of its flowers in the Central Indian Forests. Suddenly, Hari Ram sat up looking startled. Following his gaze, I saw the outline of a fuzzy white form with four yellow circles staring fixedly at us from a hollow right above. They were two juveniles of the Indian eagle owl peeping out of the cavity and even at that tender age, they appeared formidable with their hypnotic stare. Later, Hari Ram confided in me grimly, “Didi, aaj jungle ki chudail ne hume dekh liya hai! Ab hum dono jaldi hi mar jayenge (Now that the forest witch has seen us, we both will die very soon)!” Fortunately, Hari Ram’s prophecy has not come true in the last 17 years, but owls continue to be considered as harbingers of death till date.
IF LOOKS COULD KILL…
Owls inspire such beliefs because of their unconventional appearance and behavior. With a round facial disc,over sized eyes, an ability to rotate its head and their uncanny vocalization,owls are the undisputed candidate to play the role of banshee. Apart from their trademark hoots and howls, they are capable of emitting guttural shrieks,mournful wails, rapacious laughter and even the death cries of a woman being strangled! Heard more often than seen,owls are therefore, regarded as the spirit of the dead. Presence of bones and skulls around their roost and nest sites provides a compelling evidence for the believers.
The 230 species of owls in the world are classified in two distinct families: the Tytonidae family includes the barn owls, while all other owls belong to the Strigidae family that are considered to be true owls. The world’s largest owl is 84 cm tall, the Great Grey Owl (Strixnebulosa), from the northern hemisphere, while the smallest is the Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi) from southwestern America, which is only 13 cm tall. Almost two-third species of owls are nocturnal or crepuscular while the remaining one-third are diurnal. India supports 33 species of owls. The Eurasian Eagle-owl (Bubo bubo) found in peninsular India is the largest, reaching up to 66 cm, while the smallest is the 15 cm tall collared owlet (Glaucidium brodiei) from north and north-eastern India. All owls in the country are nocturnal or crepuscular except the endemic Forest Owlet (Hetero glauxblewitti) which is diurnal.
OF SUPERPOWERS AND SKILLS
Owls are versatile birds. They are found everywhere on the earth except in Antarctica and some remote islands. Although owls are considered to be birds of prey, they are closely related to nocturnal Night jars. Owls have earned the nocturnal niche with great adaptations that no other carnivorous bird possesses.
Owls feed on moving prey, so they depend entirely on their eyesight and hearing to locate their food. The pupils of their eyes open three times wider than the human eye and has maximum number of rod cells that can respond in dim light. Most birds have a transparent nictitating membrane that is opaque in owls so as to not let the bright light hurt their sensitive eyes. Most owls have yellow to orange iris while a few have dark ones, but the color of iris has no relation with their time of hunting or the ability to see,as it is often assumed. The ears of owls are positioned at different heights on either side of their head, which is why they often tilt their head to judge the location of the sound.
Owls feed on mice, shrews, reptiles, small birds, and plentiful insects. Like other birds of prey, owls swallow their prey whole. However, they cannot store the food like other birds as they do not have a storage organ called the crop. Their food passes directly from the mouth to the gizzard where digestion takes place. The undigested remains such as the bones, fur, feathers, and hair are regurgitated out of the mouth in a form of a pellet, 8 to 10 hours after feeding.The prey remains from the pellets provide valuable information on the owl’s diet. All birds make their own nests; again, owls are an exception to this. Owls lay their eggs in tree cavities and nests abandoned by other birds. Some owls even nest on rocky platforms, window ledges and abandoned houses. In the Sonaran desert, the elf owl and the cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum cactorum) go that extra mile to nest in a giant cactus!
FOLKLORE AND MYTHS
From ancient Greek mythology to the recent fantasy stories of Harry Potter, owls have played a pivotal role in depicting death, dread, enigma, power, doom and wisdom. Owls are feared and revered, conserved and hunted. No other bird,in fact, has such a paradoxical socio cultural association.
The Greek Goddess of wisdom, Athena, considered owls to be a symbol of power, victory and wisdom, while in ancient Rome, sighting an owl was a sign of an impending disaster. In some parts of England, owls are considered to bring imminent death, while in other parts they were a sign of good fortune. Shakespeare used the owl to predict the dramatic death of Julius Caesar. “…yesterday, the bird of night did sit/Even at noon day, upon the market place, Hooting and shrieking”
In many Western countries in the past several decades, owls have gained a positive perception owing to the-awareness and inputs generated by the scientific community. However, this change is still to take place in most Asian countries where owls are considered as possessors of evil powers even today.
In India, thousands of owls are captured and traded for all sorts of irrational uses. Since Laxmi, the wealth Goddess, rides on owls, many owls are captured during Diwali to welcome Laxmi at home! Owl eyes, tail, feather, beak,and talons are used in folk medicine for deriving good eyesight and treating ailments from arthritis to whooping cough. Owls are even made to perform on the streets to pick lucky lottery numbers and predict good fortunes—all at the cost of their own misfortune.
Owl capture and trade is a punishable offence in India. Even then, thousands of owls are captured and exported annually. The law may help in rescuing the captured owls but unless the deep rooted superstitious beliefs surrounding them are eradicated, the bird will continue to be persecuted in the country.
Owls, known as ullusin India, are not foolish. They have cleverly created an-exclusive niche for themselves to hunt at night when all other birds sleep. Owls are not inauspicious, cannot pick lucky numbers and cannot even cure ailments.
They cannot predict death nor are they doomed. However, owls are of immense importance to farmers as they feed on rodents and ensure a prosperous harvest. Annually, about 56% of crops are damaged due to rodent infestation that is counteracted by liberal use of rodenticides. The harmful chemical in the rodenticide not only kills rats, but affects the survival of many birds and small mammals that feed on them. Owls are natural rodent controllers and should be welcomed in the farms.
Most of us feel happy to have seen or photographed an owl. However, there is a need to go beyond personal gratification.We need the owls. The owl’s future is linked to its positive profile and there is an urgent need to act on the social stigma attached to them. Let us make an effort to liberate ourselves and others from the false beliefs held about this bird of the night and allow to fly fearlessly in the dark night sky.
(This article is based on the author’s work on the ecology of the forest owlet in Madhya Pradesh, supported by the Department of Science and Technology and Raptor Research and Conservation Foundation, Mumbai.)
This article first appeared in the March-May 2016 edition of Saevus magazine.