Owls outwit books

  • Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Aug 10, 2014 08:53 IST


Considered as one of the biggest green lungs of the tricity area, it is not surprising that the 550-acre Panjab University (PU) has run up a list of 90 bird species photographed by Navtej Singh. One of the most significant finds has been the brown hawk-owl, a bird whose distribution is not listed for this region in books on ornithology. This owl was found sitting high up in a dense bamboo cluster last week by Navtej.

Part of the reason why birds pop up in regions, which are not shown as their range in books, is that these areas remain largely unexplored and birds do keep moving in response to environment changes. The thick jungles of Shivaliks lying behind the tricity are a fine habitat for this owl, and there could be more specimens that exist undiscovered here.



The owl is so-called because of its profile and flight that resembles that of a hawk. A pair can be found sometimes cuddled together in the seclusion of thick cover. It feeds on large insects, frogs, lizards, small birds and bats, mice etc. Though listed in books as a species primarily of the Himalyan foothills, this owl has been photographed at Jhajjar and Sonepat (Haryana) and at Bharatpur (Rajasthan) also. Other sightings of this owl not too far from the tricity have been from Rajaji National Park and Paonta Sahib.


Though the real clouds are playing a fickle mistress to the tricity's monsoon season, snakes seem to be reigning at the Badal house. On the night of August 4, India's most venomous snake, the common krait, decided to stir up things at the Punjab CM's official residence in Sector 2, Chandigarh. The 3.5-foot krait was first seen just inside the main gates at 10 pm, and after it was hounded by some burly Punjab cops, the snake took refuge in a 'bargad' ficus tree. http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/popup/2014/7/krait_compressed.jpg

CAPTION: Khan with krait from Badal's residence. PHOTO:VIKRAMJIT SINGH

The tree had parasitic vines trailing to the ground like long priestly beards and the krait took advantage of one of these to climb to 12 feet and out of danger of a possible lathi charge. One can appreciate the krait's anxiety as it also faced the prospect of "arrest" by the CM security and a potential confession being extracted from it of being an infiltrator on the payroll of the Badals' political rivals! Anyways, the fire brigade was summoned, and its personnel in turn sought the help of snake-rescue expert, Salim Khan. It is a measure of the terror that cops strike in the hearts of lesser beings because Khan had never seen a krait climb so high! Knowing also the krait's aversion to light, Khan asked the cops wielding flashlights not to shine it at the krait but at a spot three feet above.

The krait was hoodwinked into believing that there was light above so it naturally turned away and moved down the tree where Khan was able to rescue it. (Pssst! One wonders what the soothsayers, astrologers and political pundits will make of the krait surfacing at the Hon'ble CM's house.)


A side-effect of the internet age has been that 'copy & paste' can easily masquerade as research. Peter Smetaceck of the Butterfly Research Centre, Bhimtal (Uttarakhand), has written a letter on August 8, 2014, to the Director of the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) exposing the "plagiarism'' by four of his officers. "The matter concerns moths of the family Sphingidae (hawkmoths). In November 2012, we compiled a catalogue of the hawkmoths of India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal, coining common English names for them.

This list and a similar list of Saturniidae (emperor moths) was put up on a site devoted to butterflies and moths (www.flutters.org) with a view to soliciting opinions about the common names, prior to publishing the catalogue. Much to our surprise, we now find that the common names coined by us have been published without attribution by a team of your workers, Dr Kailash Chandra, Jitendra Kumar, S Sambath and Bulganin Mitra, (June 2014): A Catalogue of the Hawkmoths of India (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae), Bionotes 16(2). As an Indian, I am deeply ashamed by the actions of my countrymen.

I had initiated this project with Dr Ian Kitching, the leading international authority on hawkmoths, and Dr Roger Kendrick, who has extensive experience in the field. They kindly took out time from their busy schedules to make the catalogue and we spent many days coining new common names to help my countrymen know our fauna better," states Smetaceck's stinging letter. In a response to Smetaceck's accusations, ZSI Additional Director Dr Chandra replied the same day, stating that this "happened unintentionally for which we feel sorry and the author will immediately send the corrigendum to Bionotes that the common names published in the said paper were obtained from Kitching, Kendrick and Smetacek and other sources."


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