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Wildbuzz: The Harry Potter owls

Owls are one of the least researched groups of birds, not only due to their nocturnal and secretive lifestyle, but also because of their misconceived association with taboo and stigma

punjab Updated: Aug 05, 2018 09:07 IST
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Harry Potter,owls,Wildbuzz
A pair of Brown Fish Owls.(SUNIL Manikkath)

When it comes to owls, most of us entertain a meagre measure of objective knowledge and more an accumulated burden of myth, folklore and superstition.

Owls are one of the least researched groups of birds, not only due to their nocturnal and secretive lifestyle, but also because of their misconceived association with taboo and stigma. So, when I discovered the Brown Fish Owl in our region at Perch dam on May 10, 2014, at 10.40pm, what struck me were the bizarre, golden eyes luminous in the jungle night. After that sighting, I encountered the species again on May 23, 2018, when I chanced upon a well-matched pair at Mirzapur dam. It was obvious our region hosts very few Brown Fish Owls despite an abundance of perennial waterbodies.

I came back to Mirzapur dam, eager to procure a picture of the pair, with my accomplished photographer friends, Rick Toor and Gursimrat Singh, but fishermen had disturbed their habitat and we could not trace the owls. During my Mirzapur encounter, I had observed one owl perched in an overgrown ravine overlooking water where a sambar fawn carcass (killed by village dogs) was rotting. In all probability, the owl was feeding on carrion, a rare behaviour for an owl species. My observation was confirmed when I thumbed the writings of Salim Ali, who had stated that this species was once “observed feeding on the putrefying carcass of a crocodile”.

The owl’s call, a deep, hollow-sounding ‘boom-o-boom’, explodes in the jungle stillness with an eerie, jangling effect on human nerves! Unlike the kingfisher’s dive into water, the Brown Fish Owl waits for live prey (fish, frogs, reptiles, crustaceans) by occupying a perch above shallow waters. As night falls and aquatic creatures nose into shallow tracts, the owl plucks them from water or skims the surface using long legs to lift prey.

A detailed, scientific insight into the owl’s feeding spectrum was made available to the public after researchers Raju Vyas, Kartik Upadhayay, Mital Patel, Rahul Bhatt and Pritesh Patel, deployed night vision cameras to monitor a nest bearing two chicks in a tree hollow at the Jambughoda Wildlife Sanctuary (Gujarat). Their research paper, ‘Notes on the breeding of Brown Fish Owl’, is a benchmark for owl foodie facts and parental behaviour.

“An average of 8.34 feeding flights were recorded nightly by the parents. Both chicks remained calm and silent during the day, but at night, both were active after sunset, and continued screaming (chih …chih …chhhhiiih), and begging. Eighteen types of food items, belonging to various groups of invertebrates and vertebrates, were brought for chicks. The food items were identified as: 116 unidentified bugs, crabs, prawns, etc; 48 frogs and toads, 20 snakes, three lizards, four fishes, and one bird species. To do this, we used images from cameras, collected pellets, and the remains of uneaten food from the nest. We noticed that snakes were always brought in decapitated by the parents. Both parents actively assisted in cutting prey into tiny pieces, so that hatchlings could swallow easily,” the research paper stated.

First Published: Aug 04, 2018 22:52 IST