WILDBUZZ: On a dark night, those blood-red eyes
On a coal-black moonless night were a jungle fire to light up the edges of the dark dome, you would in that imagery find an analogy to describe the eyes of a very rare owl of our region. The Mottled Wood owl flashes dark reddish-brown eyes rimmed with eyelids of coral red. Those mysterious and brooding eyes preside over a beautifully mottled and vermiculated face with plumage etchings in reddish brown, black, white and buff. Hence the owl’s poetic Sanskrit name, Raktalochan, or the one with blood-red eyes.
The good news for the tricity’s vibrant community of bird watchers, owl lovers and Nature enthusiasts is that a second family of this owl species has been discovered with two growing ‘bacchas’ at the Peermuchalla forests, Zirakpur. The first photographic record from the tricity of a family of four owls came from the haloed groves of the Chandigarh Golf Club in May 2018 following a freakish discovery of one fledgling stranded on the verdant fairways by the caddie of international golfer, Sujjan Singh.
The owls in the Peermuchalla forests were discovered by Ranjit Singh, a retired deputy general manager from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. Singh has undertaken creditable field work to photo-document birds of the Ghaghar-Peermuchalla range. After the owls gave birth to two chicks in an old, dead tree hollow this spring, Singh was joined by Gurjeet Virk, an owl lover and bird photographer who had taken premature retirement from the Indian Air Force’s accounts wing.
Together, they protected the dead tree from being cut down or intruders disturbing the family. Virk makes two trips a day to the nesting tree to ensure the owl family’s safety. They are happy to record that while one chick has begun to fly about and perches next to the father on an adjacent tree, the other chick is yet confined to the nest under Mummy’s care but will take wing soon enough, if all goes well.
Mottled Wood owls are endemic to the subcontinent but are one of the least-studied owls in the world. Fortunately, due to the painstaking field work undertaken over seven years by researchers from the Ela Foundation, Pune, Savitribai Phule University, Pune, and Ben Gurion University, Israel, we do have some understanding of their breeding ecology and the possible threats the species is faced with. The resultant study, titled, Breeding Biology of the Mottled Wood owl in West-Central India, was published in the prestigious journal of the Raptor Research Foundation.
I spoke to Dr Satish Pande, the lead researcher who has been personally observing and understanding these fascinating owls for 26 years. “We collected 1,033 pellets from the nests of the 15 breeding pairs of Mottled Wood owls during the course of our study. From these, 711 prey items were identified. The major prey types were insects (39.2%) and small mammals (rodents 10.4%; shrews 21.0%). We also identified the remains of birds (11.0%), reptiles (9.4%), bats (3.4%), scorpions (1.1%), amphibians (0.7%), and molluscs (4.1%). In our study area of Pune, owls breed from the second week of February to May. The clutch size is usually two to three white, oval eggs, but one pair fledged four young. Nests are chosen in tree hollows with an opening to the sky. But unusually, we also have some records of this owl taking over the sticks nest of other birds such as one from Uttar Pradesh recently where the Mottled Wood owl pair occupied a crow nest,” Dr. Pande told this writer.
When I asked Dr Pande to explain the marked difference in size of the Peermuchalla chicks, ie, one could fly while the other was still in the nest, he said this was due to the fact that the female owl lays eggs at intervals of two days. “So, they hatch also in a staggered time sequence accounting for the difference in growth between siblings from the same clutch,” said Dr Pande.
“The species’ habit of nesting in large, old trees, including dead trees, could pose a conservation threat. Wood cutting in rural areas is usually directed toward older trees that are more likely to harbour natural nest hollows used by owls and the preservation of old, robust trees in open areas is usually not a priority in conservation strategies. Old, dead trees are also eco-systems, so we recommend preservation of old trees, whether alive or dead, that stand singly in open habitats. The other threat is from secondary poisoning, ie the owl chicks ingesting dead rodents brought by their parents which were poisoned by farmers.Our study found presence of poisoned rats in three different nests, which resulted in the deaths of four owl nestlings,” Dr Pande explained.
“In conclusion, our limited research on this endemic and little-studied species raises several points of immediate concern. Although the research community currently knows little of its ecological status and threats, our data suggest that the Mottled Wood Owl’s breeding capacity could impose constraints on the population, particularly in the face of increased human encroachment in rural areas. Additionally, its apparent inability to nest near human activity could become a handicap if the species is limited by habitat loss to urbanisation or other anthropogenic changes,” warned the study.