Active hooter alert: An urban owl project takes off

ByNatasha Rego
Jul 28, 2023 04:37 PM IST

The Urban Owl Network aims to work with volunteers in 15 cities to collect rescue data, so as to identify threats against these species.

There’s a true story often retold, about how Chinese premier Mao Zedong ordered people across that country to kill sparrows, so that there would be more grain for humans. The following year, with their natural predators gone from the skies, pests reigned unchecked, devouring crops and plunging the country into a three-year famine.

A volunteer from the NGO Wildlife Welfare Association, with an owl injured in a storm, in Thane in 2021. (HT Archives) PREMIUM
A volunteer from the NGO Wildlife Welfare Association, with an owl injured in a storm, in Thane in 2021. (HT Archives)

In India, a frequent victim of misconceptions is the owl, of which there are 36 species in the country.

These birds have traditionally been viewed with suspicion because of their nocturnal habits; they’re considered a bad omen in many Indian cultures, associated with evil and death. They’re also associated with Laxmi, the goddess of wealth; and are captured, sold and sacrificed at Diwali, in parts of the subcontinent, in the belief that this will keep the goddess from leaving a home (since the owl is her vehicle).

Meanwhile, there is little data available within the scientific community, or in the growing and increasingly active communities of Indian birders. Since owls spend most of their lives out of view, neither colourful and visible nor audible through the day, they don’t often show up on informal counts.

On crowdsourced platforms such as eBird and iNaturalist, where populations and migration patterns across species are painstakingly tracked, there are about 100 owl sightings recorded for every 10,000 sightings of the myna or the sparrow.

Research on owl species tends to focus on wild habitats, particularly those of the endangered and endemic forest owlet, which was rediscovered amid great excitement in 1997, after more than 100 years.

How is India’s rapid urbanisation affecting its owl species? How is their distribution changing? Are numbers falling, stable or rising?

When it comes to the cities, little is known, says Prachi Mehta, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, Pune. “Species such as barn owls and spotted owlets and even eagle owls have adapted to live in and around cities, but very few studies have been done, and most of those have focused on wild populations,” Mehta says.

One woman is looking to change this.

Debangini Ray, an interdisciplinary ecologist from Guwahati, launched the Urban Owl Network (UON) in March, a citizen-science network focused on owl outreach and the long-term monitoring of owls across Indian cities.

She is inviting citizens across 15 cities to join the network and report owl rescue efforts by NGOs, and identify the threats that necessitate such efforts. The larger mission is to gain a clearer view of India’s urban owls, and acquire some insight into the threats they face in cities and whether those risks overlap with human activity.

She is currently recruiting volunteers in cities from Imphal and Shillong to Delhi, Agra, Udaipur, Mumbai, Pune, Mysuru and Panaji, among others.

So far, 120 people have signed up. It can help to be a birder, but anyone is welcome to sign up, via the Google form linked to the initiative’s Instagram handle, @urbanowlnetwork.

UON began as part of Ray’s PhD thesis on anthropogenic threats to owls in Indian cities, which she is currently pursuing at MIT World Peace University, Pune.

“Before I started my PhD, I was looking at data from rescue organisations in Guwahati, and found that barn owls were among the most frequently rescued urban wildlife species,” says Ray, who grew up in Guwahati. “This was fascinating to me, because owls are more often heard than seen in cities.”

This gave Ray the idea of using rescue statistics to try and learn more about what the threats are, to these under-studied birds.

What’s at stake, for humans and the species? Owls are important nocturnal predators and natural pest controllers that feed on destructive rodents. A barn owl, for instance, is estimated to capture and consume up to 1,000 rodents a year, making it a friend to farmers around the world.

Between the loss of old-growth forests and the threat from illegal trade, data is a first step towards determining the status of India’s many owl populations and the threats they face.

A 2010 report by the wildlife trade monitoring NGO Traffic, part of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, identified 15 species that are traded in illegally in India, with the spotted owlet, barn owl and rock-eagle owl being the most commonly traded species.

“While the exact number of owls traded each year in the country is unknown, it certainly runs into thousands of individuals and there are anecdotal reports of owls (being impacted) due to the loss of suitable habitat, especially old growth forests,” Traffic said in a statement on its report.

“It’s important for us to understand urban ecology, particularly because India has been urbanising at a rapid scale for the last 10 years, and we still do not consider urban ecology an important part of conservation research,” says evolutionary ecologist Pankaj Koparde, who is an assistant professor at the department of environmental studies at the MIT World Peace University, Ray’s PhD supervisor, and founder of the seven-year-old OwlIndia, an independent initiative to collect data on the species.

“In that project, we are working to assess geographical distribution patterns and the effects of land-use change on owls. It is a work in progress,” he says. “In the Mughal- and British-era gardens of Pune and Aurangabad, for instance, large wood owls still nest in the old trees.”

How have those numbers changed? How vital is it for those trees to be protected? Ray hopes that her project will help provide answers.

“The larger objective is to conduct outreach and get people involved in long-term owl monitoring,” she says, “so that if there is ever a conservation policy for owls in urbanscapes, citizens can be a knowing part of the decision-making process.”

Wildlife biologist Mehta says she is glad to hear it. “Owls are difficult to locate and study; one has to study them at night, even in urban areas,” she says. This is one reason there is so little data available. “So, any information coming in about owls is welcome.”

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