The forest owlet (Athene blewitti) is a small owl endemic to India, and is classified as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, thanks to its small and isolated population in the country.
Whenever this bird has been in the news, it has thankfully been for the right reasons. In 1872, an Irish officer named Francis Robert Blewitt spotted this strange-looking owl in the Phooljar area in eastern Madhya Pradesh (now in Chhattisgarh). He suspected it was a new species of owl, so he collected the bird and sent it to Allan Hume, a well-known British taxonomist in India. Hume immediately confirmed Blewitt’s suspicion, and named it the Blewitt’s owl, a.k.a. the forest spotted owl.
But though we know it’s a separate species, its genus is under debate. In 1872, Hume assigned it to a new genus, called Heteroglaux, because it had many unique features – an unspotted crown, the presence of a full-throat collar, thickly feathered legs, a lateral tail-flicking habit and an undulating flight. A study published in February 2018 argued that the forest owlet is closely related to the genus Athene.
(Editor’s note: The author of this article was one of the coauthors of the study.)
The importance of studying owls
Owls are highly specialised raptors and have an important role in maintaining ecological balance. They feed on agricultural pests like rodents and insects. A recent report on the ‘state of India’s birds’ documented a rapid decline in the population of raptors in the country. This is of serious concern: just like tigers, raptors are on top of the ecological pyramid. If their population falls, there will be a cascade of effects on their wider ecosystems.
Against this background, the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society (WRCS) has been studying the forest owlet’s ecology in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh since 2005. Its extensive surveys have successfully located three new populations of the forest owlet in Central India. (Editor’s note: The author is a senior scientist and executive director at WRCS.)
In Central India, the forest owlet shares its habitat with several other owl species: the small spotted owlet, the jungle owlet, the Indian scops owl, the oriental scops owl, the larger brown fish owl, the mottled wood owl, the Indian eagle owl and the barn owl. While these other species are distributed throughout the country, the forest owlet has been reported only from locations in the Western Ghats and Satpura Hills.
Through long-term studies, WRCS is examining how the forest owlet coexists with other owls without outcompeting each other.
Where are they, and how many?
A systematic grid survey is essential to assess where and how many owl species are located in a given area. Researchers survey the owls by broadcasting an owl’s call at specific intervals, and wait for other owls to respond. If an owl responds, the researcher verifies its identity and marks its location as ‘occupied’. In case no owl responds, the researcher repeats the survey a few more times before declaring the grid ‘unoccupied’.
Once we locate an owl species in an area, we study its diet, nest sites and habitat requirements. (We get a sense of what an owl is eating by studying what it is pooping – i.e. owl pellets.)
For a study published in September 2018, we compared the diets of forest owlets, spotted owlets and jungle owlets. We found these three species are able to coexist because they consume different types and sizes of prey and at different times, making sure that they don’t compete for the same prey.
Colour-bands and radio-telemetry
The population estimate of a species is crucial to assessing its survival in the wild. To estimate the number of tigers, for example, we use the fact that each tiger has a unique stripe pattern on its body. To count birds, we use colour-bands, which are little stickers of different colours attached to birds’ legs.
Say you’re walking in the forest and see a pair of forest owlets in Area A. After some time, you spot a single forest owlet in Area B. You’d be hard-pressed to say if the bird at B is one of the two you saw at A – without colour-bands at least. Colour-bands help identify individual birds, their location and how far it may have travelled.
We can also determine a bird’s age by recording its date of banding, and then check where it has been photographed at different points of time. This will tell us how long the bird has lived and been in a particular area. In effect, colour-banding is like the little bird’s Aadhaar card – the bands can be colour-coded to indicate its sex, age, origin, etc.
Along with population data, it is also important to have information on home range, movement pattern, seasonal migration and habitat. For this, we track birds using radio tags to get real-time data on where they are. The radio-tag works a bit like a radio station. Each station has a fixed frequency on which it is allowed to broadcast its programmes. We can listen to these programmes if we receive signals on that frequency on our radios.
Similarly, the radio-tag is a transmitter fit on the bird’s back, and we receive the transmitted signals through the antenna by tuning the receiver to receive signals on that frequency. The signal is stronger if the bird is closer and gets weaker as the bird moves further away. This way we can determine the bird’s exact location, study the areas it uses to forage, nest and roost, and the extent of its home-range.
Radio-telemetry is useful to study the migration of birds because the technology can provide data of a bird’s movement across entire continents! The technology also provides useful information about the habitats different birds need access to to stay safe.
The owlet’s future
The forest owlet is an iconic species for conservation that survives in isolated populations in the country. As a forest-dwelling species, it needs forested habitats to roost, cavity-bearing trees to nest and forest edges to forage. If it doesn’t find these suitable resources, it will gradually perish from the area.
The prevailing desire in the country for rapid economic growth at the cost of our natural riches can and will negatively affect restricted-range species like the forest owlet and drive them towards local extinction. Perhaps this is how forest owlets vanished from Chhattisgarh and Odisha. On the other hand, they have appeared in some parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra recently. It seems the forest owlet will never cease to surprise.
Since its rediscovery, it has managed to generate a lot of interest in its life. Scientists are working on uncovering its ecology and phylogeny. (Our own studies have only made sense of the tip of a very large iceberg.) The forest department is taking active steps to support research and innovation that can help protect the species. Members of local communities are helping conserve the birds. All these efforts are important to know India’s forest owlets better.
Prachi Mehta is a senior scientist and executive director at the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, Pune.