Shrouded in mystery, owls are possibly the most fascinating creatures in nature. Growing up with characters like Hedwig, Archimedes, Big Mama, Bubo and Professor, I always wanted to see a real one, curious about what inspired artists to use these mysterious characters in cartoon strips, mythology, films and everyday humour.

My first introduction to owls was an unforgettable one. In 2013, I got a call from my birdwatcher friend who mentioned that a family of five owls was now living in an old tree in her orchard. I zealously invited myself over to this friend’s place – and was, by no means, going to lose this opportunity,  - a rare one even for professional birdwatchers. Call it beginner’s luck, but I was about to hit the goldmine!

I drove frantically, (but without breaking any traffic rules), successfully ignoring the creaks and stutters of my almost ragged car; I wanted to reach there as quickly as possible. Waiting for me at the door, was my friend, who led me to her backyard. Just before she was about to leave me with my winged friends – she wanted me to discover them on my own and allow a wordless conversation between nature and me – she said something that I would never forget. She said, “Owl Away, my friend.”

With great caution, I tiptoed towards the tall Saptaparni tree (botanical name - Alstonia scholaris). Saptaparni are fast growing evergreen trees that can stand as tall at 40 meters and are largely used for medicinal purposes. The one in my friend’s backyard, however, held a sight that completely mesmerized me – five Indian scops owls were resting in a meditative state on its branches, merging with the brown tones of the big trunk that lay as the background.

Indian Scops Owls Call

Bird Call Credit: Peter Boesman, Xeno-canto

Indian Scops Owls, one of the 'Ullu's' are small in size and often go unnoticed due to their camouflaging abilities and cryptic plumage. Owing to their smart adaptive countermeasures, they are mostly identified through their call, a very distinct frog like “whuk”. They are also known to get quite vocal during their breeding season!

What I saw on that tree was a happy family of just these scops owls – two adults flanking three adorable orange eyed orbs. The young ones, full of energy, looked at me with an eagerness and curiosity that only children are known to possess. One little youngling soon found a branch to sleep on, using another as its headrest. I quietly sat down in a corner to keep an eye on this happy owl family. As the day progressed I saw the owl parents taking turns to stand guard, while the little ones hopping away, straying every now and then, led by curiosity and reigned in under the watchful eyes of their parents.

As the clock ticked away, and rather quickly, it was time for me to leave. That day I brought home one of my most happy memories and an astoundingly beautiful feeling – one that I keep revisiting in my head.

© Abhishek Gulshan/WWF-India

Owls & conservation

Rodents and insects like rats and roaches thrive near human habitation due to the waste produced in households. Owls prey on them, and so control rodent and insect populations naturally.

Guardians of urban ecosystems, owls play an important role in our everyday lives, making it even more important for us to protect them.

An owl’s' senses adapt rather uniquely to the lack of light. Extremely efficient predators at night, owls primarily locate prey through their delicate sense of hearing and their ability to detect movement in very little light; swooping down swiftly and grabbing prey with their sharp talons. They hunt rodents and can take on several creatures - big or small.

However, the numerous and age-old superstitions that owls bring bad luck and are bad omens and harbingers of death, - are hurting their chances of survival. As a result, owls are often discriminated against and harmed. Another factor that poses a threat to owl populations is habitat loss. Rapid development is quickly destroying rodent population, eliminating a major food source of owls and threatening their survival.

How the world looks at owls needs to change quickly and drastically if we are to save the species from disappearing. We need to realise that all creatures have a role to play in the ecological system and that disturbing this delicate balance could harm us considerably in the long run.  

© Abhishek Gulshan/WWF-India
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