All The Better To See You With
In and around the Auroville Township in Puducherry live at least six species of owls. Eric Ramanujam offers Sanctuary readers a charming introduction to these birds of darkness.
Photo: E. Seshan.
Some time back I received this note from Rajeev Bhatt, a science teacher in one of Auroville’s schools and environmental educationalist, popularly referred to as the ‘pambu atti’ (‘snake charmer’ in Tamil, because he once helped in snake rescue) - “Here are a couple of photos of the owlets that are visiting my place regularly. I identified them as the Jungle Owlet.” All I could tell him was that they were young (mesoptiles) and to wait until the parents put in an appearance before positively identifying the species. To his credit, he did so and even took photographs – it turned out that they were Indian Scops Owls. In his defense, I must say that it is very difficult to identify young owls and when I saw my first young Indian Eagle Owl, I did not know what species it was. However, I did not jump to conclusions like an ‘expert’ (a term that one will encounter frequently in Auroville – what will happen if Rajeev stumbles upon the term ‘authority’? – one can only shudder at the mere thought).
Auroville and its Owls
In an earlier article of mine in Blackbuck, 15 years ago, I had referred to Auroville as a ‘city forest’ but knowing better now since I presently work there, it should be termed a township surrounded by a greenbelt which contains a few forest plantations of the autochthonous coastal vegetation of the Coromandel Coast, popularly and controversially known as the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest. Once an environmental disaster, the wasteland that was the Auroville plateau has now been converted to a land of verdant green, albeit dominated by a number of exotics like Australian acacias and eucalyptus. It lies approximately 15 km. north of the Union Territory of Puducherry (formerly a French enclave) in Tamil Nadu and is well known for its experiments in sustainable livelihoods and technologies. It was started in 1968, the brainchild of Mira Alfassa, a Frenchwoman (reverentially referred to as the ‘Mother’) who envisaged it to be an international township and an experiment in human unity – uniquely, she never set foot on it.
Naturally, once the native pockets of forest plantations began regenerating and expanding, the wildlife returned – among them at least six species of owls.
Photo: E. Seshan.
Small and beautiful
The smallest, commonest and most easily seen species is the Spotted Owlet Athene brama (etymology: Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom, arts and war, and brama after Brahma – the ‘creator’ and one of the triumvirate of supreme gods in the Hindu pantheon). Unlike most owls, it is partly diurnal but mostly nocturnal and crepuscular (active during twilight and dusk). Its harsh chattering calls can sometimes be heard all day. It occurs in almost all types of vegetated areas as well as wastelands (provided there are a few Palmyras or cavities in the ravine walls - in fact anywhere where it can nest) including agricultural fields, around villages and occasionally even within human habitations provided there are some derelict buildings where it can find a suitable hollow. There is even a resident family in ‘the Banyan Tree’, the ‘Heart of Auroville’, adjacent to the Matrimandir renowned for its not very nice exterior facade. Among the owls of this place it is the one that can almost be considered a commensal of humans. I have personally encountered them in the heart of Puducherry City and a couple of nestlings were brought to me on the island on which I live, one of the most densely-populated areas (once a pirate island until Joseph Francois Dupleix (governor of Pondicherry) put an end to piracy in these parts in the mid-1700s). Though it may take the odd mouse or small rat, our studies have shown that it subsists primarily on arthropods – predominantly insects, but also spiders, scorpions and centipedes. During the breeding season in the summer months of April to July, many young fall out of their nesting cavities and it is not uncommon to find some concerned Aurovillians bringing up the orphans. Once they can fly, they are released back into the wild, and on more than half a dozen occasions I have personally watched adults that were not their natural parents, feeding the youngsters as if they were their own offspring.
Slightly larger than the Spotted Owlet is the Indian Scops Owl Otus bakkamoena (etymology: Otus after the Greek word otos meaning ‘eared owl’, and bakkamoena after the Sri Lankan term bakamuna for the Barn Owl or Brown Fish Owl). It was once called the ‘Collared Scops Owl’, but that term is now reserved for the species Otus lettia found in the Himalaya, Northeast India and East Bangladesh. Common in forested areas and orchards, it is rarely seen since it is strictly nocturnal and during the day its cryptic plumage blends well with the background of tree barks even when it rests outside its roosting cavity. It is easily recognised by its acoustics: one of the sexes makes a subdued whut which is usually answered by its mate’s whuk; both sexes will sometimes enter into a fast-paced duet when the calls become quite indistinct and unrecognisable (I am still to work out the sex specific call though I do not think that will happen in the near future – it would be a good opportunity for a budding biologist with an interest in avian song patterns). Though small in size, it is the most aggressive of all owls that I have come across – on many occasions when we had identified a nest with an incubating/brooding female and tried to investigate, the male attacked fearlessly, even during the day. A neighbour of ours had hand-raised an orphan that led a completely free existence. It would fly away when the light faded, but inevitably return to its roost in the house at dawn. An unfamiliar person approaching its roosting place would be unhesitatingly mobbed. For some reason I was spared any such attack when I first approached it.
Like the Spotted Owlet it feeds principally on arthropods though its diet varies depending on the type of habitat it occupies. Our studies have shown that in a forested ravine its diet comprised principally of Orthopterans (grasshoppers, crickets and allies), whereas in a forested area on the plateau, termites predominated. It too is a cavity nester, but since it occurs in denser vegetated habitats the degree of competition with the Spotted Owlet is minimal though the breeding period of both species coincides.
Photo: Rajeev Bhatt.
The large ones
The largest species is the Indian Eagle Owl Bubo bengalensis (etymology: Bubo from Latin meaning Eagle Owl probably from the call, and bengalensis from Bengal after which many faunal and floral forms are named). It is also known as the Rock Horned Owl, Rock Eagle Owl, Bengal Eagle Owl and Great Horned Owl – the last term used by Dr. Sálim Ali and Ripley, but internationally accepted to be that of the American species Bubo virgianus. At one time it was considered a sub-species of the Eurasian Eagle Owl Bubo bubo, but molecular analysis has proved beyond doubt that it is a species in its own right. In Auroville this species is confined to the ravines and is rarely found in vegetated areas, though in the near vicinity it is found on an isolated rocky outcropping. Over most of the Deccan it frequents hillocks and hilly areas covered with scrub, and it is my personal theory that the species adapted to life in the ravines on account of similar nesting sites. This is one of the few species of owls that is not a cavity nester, nor builds or appropriates nests of other raptors, preferring to breed in bare sheltered areas… sometimes no more than a scrape in the ground. In these areas the breeding season can start any time from the beginning of the year. The young remain with the parents until September or October, until the commencement of the monsoons. The young will stay with the parents until they are capable of hunting on their own. The primary nourishment comes from rodents and hares, though the owls also feed on birds and frogs, with the odd insect, scorpion and centipede adding grist to the mill. It is the apex predator in the ravines and will attack, kill and partly eat other owls and diurnal birds of prey – what is termed ‘intraguild aggression’, the same way early humans and large carnivores competed for the same space and food. This is my primary study subject and since I have written about it in Sanctuary Asia (http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/magazines/features/9894-notes-from-a-bubophile.html) earlier, I will not dwell on this.
A late entrant to Auroville – in fact I first came upon it only in the year 2001 – is the Mottled Wood Owl Strix ocellata (etymology: in Latin Stryx for a Screech Owl, and ocellata from ocellus meaning ‘eylet or little eye’ pertaining to the eye-like markings). This is a rare and extremely shy species, reliant on ‘old growth’ which provides large-enough nesting cavities. The owl’s presence can usually be detected only by its unique quavering ooooo-whaaaa call, usually repeated three times in a row – a call I can imitate quite reasonably and have used to dupe a gullible American one night who enthusiastically wrote about hearing the bird in her report. Strictly nocturnal, it also utters a toot at the onset of dusk. Beyond this, I personally know little of its habits and behaviour.
Photo: A. Lakshmikantan.
A rare visitor to Auroville – I have recorded it just once in Auroville’s flooded fields – is the Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus (etymology: Asio, from Pliny’s mention of an eared or horned owl, and flammeus from Latin meaning ‘flame coloured, flaming or fiery’). Though rare in Auroville, it is quite common during its winter migration in the famous Kaliveli floodplain a couple of kilometres north of Auroville. During its short residency, it can be observed even in broad daylight, usually sitting or walking about on the ground. Since its period of occurrence is so short, we have not been able to gather data on the species, hence I cannot comment more on it.
One species that was said to be quite common in Auroville is the Barn Owl Tyto alba (etymology: Tyto, from the Greek tuto meaning an ‘owl’, and the Latin albus meaning ‘white’ and pertaining to its white underparts). This is one species that I have had little opportunity to examine, in spite of it being said to be common. In Auroville township I have encountered it only on a couple of occasions in a ravine and have never seen or heard it in forested areas and human habitations bordering fields, unlike in the Cauvery Delta and other places in Tamil Nadu where it is quite abundant and has been part of ongoing studies. I find this alarming because whenever we converse with farmers in the region they all assure us that at one time it used to be quite common, but not anymore. More information has to be compiled but I suspect the indiscriminate use of pesticides could be the cause of the decline in its population.
As always there is always a silver lining to a dark cloud and we may be able to do justice to this most maligned bird – its Tamil name is ‘chavu kuruvi’, literally meaning ‘bird of death’. Our organisation, the Kaliveli Environment Education Trust, has been working in the Kaliveli watershed, in an area of over 700 sq. km. comprising wetland, fragmented forest blocks and sacred groves, farmland and rural habitation of which the township is only a small part. Twenty kilometres away from Auroville Township, on our trust land, an area of 40 or so acres has been undergoing reforestation for about a decade. We hope we will be able to piece together the natural history of the Barn Owl in this region since there is a breeding pair at the site. But an issue remains – the land is bordered by fields and assuredly the owls must be hunting for rodents in them. Problems and frustrations are part and parcel of the life of a wildlife biologist and I am under no delusions of the success of the venture. But if we can holistically unravel even the minutest detail of land use and correlate it to the diet, prey density and breeding potential of a predatory species we would have made a significant step in the right direction.
Author: Eric Ramanujam, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 8, August 2016.