Under watchful eyes

Owls are victims of unfair labelling thanks to the superstition of them being purveyors of bad luck, but in reality, they are enigmatic and beautiful.
Last Updated : 28 January 2023, 20:06 IST

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Ramya Coushik
Ramya Coushik

Two pairs of unseen eyes keep a vigil on us while we are at Navilu Kaadu. At dusk, the bearers of these watchful eyes emerge from the dense canopy of the tamarind tree behind our cottage.

As night settles, piercing shrieks stun us out of our sleep and our roof turns into a fierce hunting ground, frantic scurrying and screeching shattering the nighttime stillness. The ear-splitting noises sound like a creature’s vocal cords are being tugged at and given a sound shaking.

For a while, we kept guessing the identity of the mysterious hunter inciting these wild nocturnal skirmishes.

One evening, while supervising repairs of our drip irrigation lines, I heard the familiar shriek that routinely spooked us out of our nightly slumber. It seemed to emanate from the tamarind tree, a little distance in front of our cottage.

I approached the tree and scanned the dense canopy. Nothing, but for raw tamarind pods dangling from the boughs. And then, I spotted a movement among the leafy branches. A pair of bright yellow eyes studied me under distinct white brows on a little round head.

I had spotted the head of a spotted owlet!

Unlike the spotted owlets I had seen at Lal Bagh in Bengaluru, which just stared back unfazed at scores of curious birdwatchers, our Navilu Kaadu specimen seemed unaccustomed to attention. The shy creature retreated deeper into the canopy. During a subsequent visit, we spied a pair of them roosting in the tamarind tree behind the cottage.

Both sightings were just fleeting glimpses of their shifting dark forms somewhere within the canopy. My younger one and I sometimes kept vigil by the two tamarind trees waiting for the owlets to show themselves in the open, but with no luck.

Spotted owlets (Athene brama) are diminutive owls at just around 21 cm, hence the moniker ‘owlet’. They have perfectly round heads, sport nifty white collars and matching supercilium (the white brows referenced earlier). These cute little birds are nocturnal and crepuscular (active at twilight) raptors.

They are ace hunters and the ample rodent population in Navilu Kaadu is manna for our pair of spotted owlets. They are doubtlessly feasting on small reptiles, birds, beetles, and other insects too. These owlets are our allies on the farm, keeping pests in check.

Owls in general, are victims of unfair labelling thanks to the superstition of them being purveyors of ill luck, possibly because they are creatures of the night. Then again, Hindu mythology honours owls (specifically barn owls) as the mount of Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. Some consider an owl sighting as a harbinger of prosperity.

Some even worship the owl in the hope that the bird makes a favourable representation of them to its divine mistress, who may, in turn, bestow the worshipper with affluence! Owls are associated with wisdom and intelligence too.

Like all owls, spotted owlets are incapable of moving their eyes. Their heads cannot accommodate spherical eyeballs and so they have tube-shaped eyes firmly attached to their skull, via facial bones called sclerotic rings.

Instead, they are gifted with creepily flexible necks that can rotate to 270 degrees. Owls also possess other superpowers such as monocular and binocular vision, while most birds have to make do with just monocular vision, and we humans get by with binocular vision.

One of our owlets eventually did emerge from hiding on New Year’s Eve. A commotion erupted in the tamarind tree in front of the cottage, just as we were loading our car to head back to the city.

Red-whiskered bulbuls ‘mobbed’ the spotted owlet, chasing it out of the tree. Flocks of smaller birds are known to attack raptors to defend nests or their home range.

The miffed owlet flew out and perched on the neighbouring Sizzling tree (Albizia lebbeckBaage mara in Kannada), leafless and bare in its winter attire. The enigmatic bird was finally visible in plain sight. It stared me down hard as I photographed it hungrily in the fast-fading evening light, after nearly two years of trying to spot it in the open.

Now I only hope the bird had nice things to say (or hoot?) about me to its celestial rider!

Rooting For Nature is a monthly column on an off-kilter urban family’s trysts with nature on a natural farm.

The author chipped away at a software marketing career before shifting gears to independent consulting and natural farming. She posts as @ramyacoushik on Instagram. Reach her at bluejaydiaries@gmail.com

Published 28 January 2023, 19:38 IST

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