Owls have been portrayed as wise, and as birds of ill omen in turn. While there is much wonder about them, they are also killed and parts of their bodies are being used in rituals. They are considered as a biocontrol agent, keeping the agricultural pests in check, and reducing the farmer’s dependence on pesticides. It is time we recognize that they are friends of human beings and find ways to co-exist with them.
Mottled wood owl © Nazneen Sultan
They are one of the most recognised birds across the world, capable of turning their heads 270 degrees in both directions, with large hypnotic eyes and the most captivating gait. Owls are nothing short of extraordinary! Most owls are nocturnal hunters, capable of hunting in pitch dark and absolute silence with the help of their sharp hooked beak, strong talons and incredible hearing. There are more than 240 species of owls spread all across the world, of which India is home to over 32 species popularly known as the "Nocturnal Birds of Prey".
WCS-India researcher Nazneen Sultan has studied these apex predators and their roles in structuring and functioning their ecosystem. “I was instantly captivated when I learnt that owls do not have a crop (an organ in birds which helps with digestion). These birds are capable of swallowing their prey and regurgitating them later. All the osseous and chitinous remains are regurgitated through mouth in the form of pellets,” says Nazneen.
Unlike most birds, different species of owls are known to have different kinds of roosting sites, some on trees and some on the ground near cliffs. According to researchers, owls can be our answer to rampant usage of pesticides and insecticides on farmlands. “Today, villagers are aware of the benefits of owls. They know owls feed on insect and rodent pests, which in turn leads to less dependence on pesticides and insecticides. Such studies help reveal the role of owls as a biocontrol agent in the agriculture field," added Nazneen.
People for Animals rescues owls
In cities and urban areas, these owls are found quite often roosting on trees, buildings and abandoned structures. Sharing space with humans comes with its own complications, and this is where People for Animals comes in.
Indian eagle owl © Nazneen Sultan
People for Animals is an organisation which specializes in urban wildlife rescues, and has so far rescued over thousands of owls from different kinds of conflict situations. A conversation with Colonel (Dr) Navaz Shariff, General Manager and Chief Veterinarian of PFA, helps us understand the plight of these birds better: “Most owls have been rescued as the consequence of escalating unplanned urbanisation in the city, man-animal conflict, illegal trade and manja entanglement (a nylon thread coated with powdered glass, used in kite-flying).”
Owls are protected
A major issue affecting these birds now in India is wildlife trafficking. Owls are surrounded by myths and superstitions. Some consider them god-like; others think they bring bad luck, using parts of their bodies in religious rituals (skull, feathers, ear, claws, heart, liver, kidney, blood, eyes, beak, and bones) and eventually sacrifice them in the name of such beliefs. In India, owls are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. “They have a huge demand in the illegal market. So, we get many owls which have been used for black magic, with needles pierced through their bodies, eyes gouged out, ear tufts removed. On an average, we get about 20-25 black magic cases in a year. This year, it was around 19,” said Dr. Navaz.
With years of working with owls behind him, Dr. Navaz highlights how vital owls are: “They play a very important role in controlling the rodent population. A family of 5 owls can consume about 3,000 rodents in one breeding season, thus helping reduce damage to crops. They are phenomenal in pest control and help maintain the food chain. Owls also get rid of diseased rodents and stop the spread of zoonotic diseases.”
Brown fish owl © Nazneen Sultan
With owls in dire need of help today, he lists what we can do to save them: “Critical conservation of habitat with prior research, and social awareness by educating the public about an owl’s role in the environment. Building social awareness against superstition will help implementation of stringent legal action against poaching and trading. There is no place for them to nest and breed due to rapid urbanisation. Their habitat must be protected, their nesting places saved. We need to study them to learn such details,” he says.
Owls have been known to lay eggs over the course of a few days; hence, when they do hatch, there is a difference in size. This phenomenon plays a huge role in determining the owlets which survive, which is most commonly the first ones that hatched.
Save owls, they are our friends
People for Animals has addressed 2 lakh students so far about the important roles snakes and owls play, and how they are friends of human beings, thus breaking the myth that they bring bad luck.
Owls have been a part of legends, literature and culture for ages. From Hedwig in Harry Potter, to Greek mythology and owl accessories that people love, owls have been portrayed as wise and good omens, too. Researchers like Nazneen try to understand these birds so that we can find more ways to co-exist and help save them.
Written by Anisha Iyer
Anisha Iyer, A post-grad in Wildlife Management, she has worked briefly as an intern studying otters, monitoring gibbons and macaques at a rescue centre, besides volunteering with Wildlife SOS. She works as the Communication Expert at WCS-India.