January 07, 2012


Credit: Nikhil Devasar
When the eminent American ornithologist, Pamela Rasmussen along with David Abott and Ben King of the American Museum of Natural History led an expedition into the foothills of the Satpura Range to gather evidence on the existence of an indigenous owl species in the late 1990s, history was not on their side. The bird they wanted to find and document was discovered in December 1872 and was presumed to be extinct within 12 years with a total of seven collected specimens of which, ironically, none were in India. Earlier, India’s greatest avian scientist, Dr Salim Ali and American ornithologist S Dillon Ripley had failed to rediscover the species in spite of scanning the areas from where the specimens were allegedly collected by British soldier and bird lover, Richard Meinertzhagen. Their efforts even included putting up white and black posters of the bird in the areas adjoining the Melghat Tiger Reserve in a bid to involve the locals in the search operations. Even S A Hussain’s efforts to find the bird in the forests of Mandvi in Gujarat in 1976 proved futile.

The trio began their search in south-eastern Madhya Pradesh (Gomardh wildlife sanctuary and Churabathi), followed by Paikmal forests in Orissa but found no trace of the endemic Owl species. Another attempt in Shahada Forest Division based on the accounts of James Davidson met no success initially as much of the forest cover of the region had fallen prey to India’s rapid economic development After scanning through the forests of Western Maharashtra for ten days, they spotted and filmed the elusive bird on 25th November 1997 – a hundred and thirteen years since it had been last sighted. The re-discovery of this avian species, by a group of American scientists was cheered by wildlife enthusiast and bird lovers across the globe and added another dimension to the diverse ecology of India.

The Forest Owlet is one of the sixty odd species of the order Strigiformes which are found in India. Also known as the Forest Spotted Owlet and Indian Little Owlet, this avian belongs to the family Striginae (Typical Owls) which is characterized by a large circular head, short tail, cryptic plumage and round facial disc around the eyes. Unlike their cousins, the members of the Tytonidae family are identified by heart-shaped facial disc, formed by stiff feathers which serve to amplify and locate the source of sounds while hunting. Besides, the two families can be differentiated on the basis of the structural details regarding the sternum and talon.

The Forest owlet was discovered by F. R. Blewitt in Busnah-Phuljan region of Eastern Madhya Pradesh in 1872 and was christened Athena blewitti in his honor. He sent the specimen that he had collected to A O Hume, the founder of the Indian National Congress who described it in his book, Stray Feathers. A few more specimens were collected by Valentine Ball and James Davidson prior to 1884 when the beautiful bird strangely disappeared. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen claimed to have collected a specimen in Mandvi, Gujarat, thereby extending the range of the species. In fact several attempts to track the bird in the twentieth century were based largely on Richard’s account.

However, when researching for her book, Birds of South Asia, Pamela Rasmussen along with Nigel Collar found out that Colonel Meinertzhagen had committed a fraud, decades ago that involved stealing of faunal specimens from museums, modifying accompanying data and presenting them as if he had actually collected them. They found out that Richard’s specimen of the Owlet was actually the last of the five specimens collected by James Davidson and had been relabeled with false data. This had actual hindered the study of these birds of prey in the last century. Armed with this piece of vital information, Pamela decided to locate the Owlet in the jungles of Central India from where earlier specimens were reported and viola, a treasure that had been lost by a man’s greed was traced back and rediscovered, much to the delight of nature lovers everywhere.
Credit: Tarique Sani
With the rediscovery of the enigmatic bird, several expeditions were carried out by individual bird enthusiasts as well as organizations, both Indian and international to gather more data on the Forest owlet’s present status and distribution, to study its behavioral and breeding patterns, to find the reasons that have made them rare and the measures that need to be taken to improve their numbers. It is largely due to the time, money and hard work invested by all parties involved in these surveys that our understanding of the species has compounded considerably, thereby boosting steps to conserve these owlets in the wild.

In their work entitled, The rediscovery of the Forest owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti (FORKTAIL 14 (1998): 53-55), Rasmussen and King have mentioned the characteristics of the Forest owlet and the factors that distinguish it from its other relatives, besides describing their historic journey into the jungles of central India in Nov 1997. The elusive Forest owlet (23 cm) is slighter taller than the more common Spotted owlet (21 cm), with which it is often confused. It has a rather large skull, marked with small white spots on the forehead, yellow eyes, a pale facial disc and a collar of white spots on the hind neck. While the upper parts including the head, nape and scapular region are dark brown in color, the under parts are lighter whereas the tail and the wings are banded with white trailing edges, with the primaries being rather distinct from the rest of the wings. It is characterized by a dark brown bar across the throat, mainly visible when the bird is in flight.

Kishore Rithe who has extensively traveled across the Satpura ranges on the trail of the species, has noted that each individual has distinct markings, especially on the breasts. The females are slightly larger than the males, perch on higher branches and have more distinct markings.

The 'Dondar Dooda', as it is known to tribals in Melghat, was one of the few Indian bird species whose vocalization was never recorded. However, significant breakthrough was achieved by Rasmussen and Farah Ishtiaq of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in this regard when they managed to identify and record different voices given by the enigmatic bird as well as its behavior, published as a document, Vocalization and behavior of the Forest owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti (FORKTAIL 15 (1999): 61-65). A hissing call (“shreee” or “kheek”) is short and cannot be heard over long distances, lasting for 2-3 seconds on an average. The song consists of short, loud and well spaded disyllabic notes and is clearly distinct from those of other common owl species found alongside the Forest owlet. A territorial call (“kwaak…kwaak”) is given by the paired birds, back and forth while within their boundaries and during any intrusion. Other voices given include an alarm call (“chirrur…chirrur, chirr…chirr”), a begging call (“kee…k, kee…k”) made when the female or the young seek food and a contact call (“kee yah, kee…yah”) given by the female when the male gets food to her at the nest.

They perch on trees and scan the jungle below for its prey which includes lizards, rodents, birds, frogs and invertebrates like caterpillars, grass hoppers, stick insects etc. While the feeding perches are closer to the ground and in small trees, the resting and calling perches are seen close to the top of taller trees, which provides a better view of the forest below and keeps them safe from danger. While resting, it is observed to sit on one foot for long periods, keeping either one or both eyes closed for short duration. The preening bouts during resting are short and include face-scratching, wing-stretching, toe-cleaning, beak-wiping against its perch and preening various parts of its plumage. The duo observed that the flights between trees were short, direct and agile.
Credit: Copper Wiki
The peak breeding season lasts from January to February and the females give birth during spring when the prey is in plenty. During nesting, the male does the hunting and gets food for the female and the young. The fledge after about a month but are dependent on their parents for another 40-45 days. Filial cannibalism by males has been observed by Ishtiaq and Rahmani.

In 2005, the Ministry of Environment & Forests (Govt. of India), in association with several state forest departments and other ornithological institutes launched a major survey in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Orissa and Gujarat to identify the habitat of the Forest owlet and to estimate their numbers in the wild. Modern techniques like call-playback and visual scanning were used during the census that went on up to mid 2007. The call-playback technique involves broadcasting of the pre recorded calls of a territorial bird species so as to elicit a response from the territorial holder which perceives the recorded call as that of a challenger. A total of 24 birds, including 19 adults and 5 juveniles were found in Burhanpur (Khaknar and Piplod Range) and Khandwa Forest Divisions (East Kalibhit Range) in MP. As many as 20 individuals, 18 adults and 2 juveniles were spotted at the Melghat Tiger Reserve and Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary in Northern Maharashtra. Sadly, no sightings were recorded from the other three states during this survey. All recordings were made at an elevation of 150 m to 500 m and the preferred habitat seems to be dry open teak forests, contrary to popular misconception that the bird prefers living at higher altitudes.  

All the sites were noted to be under moderate to severe human pressure, a fact that could be detrimental to the survival of these rare birds. Cattle grazing, wood cutting, human encroachment and vehicular traffic within its habitat was observed in the course of the survey. Illegal logging has reduced nesting cavities; thereby increasing competition amongst various owl species to occupy the existing ones during the breeding season. Rithe mentions that the proposed Upper Tapi Irrigation Project may end up submerging a large portion of its severely fragmented and limited habitat. Besides, it is also hunted by several native raptors and tribals too. Like other owl species in India, it may also be adversely affected by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

In fact, the BNHS had sent a proposal to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Maharashtra to declare the forest owlet as the state bird, replacing the Yellow-footed Green pigeon (Hariyal). Scholars at the BNHS felt that such a move could increase awareness about the creature and could increase efforts towards the conservation of the endangered bird. While no one suspected their intentions, a large number of wildlife experts opposed such a move. They pointed out that the bird was found only in a small pocket of the state and was unknown to most Maharashtrians. Also, such a move could increase number of visitors to Melghat Tiger Reserve, adversely affecting its fragile ecology.
Credit: Jayesh K Joshi
Considering the fact that it has been placed in the Critically Endangered category of the IUCN Red List, it is imperative that surveys to gather vital data about this enigmatic owl species are continued so as to help us to formulate an action plan to protect this bird from extinction and to revive its number. It is extremely important to focus on the forests of Central India, so as to clearly identify the habitat and estimate numbers of the Forest owlet with high amount of certainty. The relocation of tribals in the vicinity of its habitat, as in some parts of the Melghat reserve can be highly beneficial. Cattle grazing needs to be regulated and felling of trees has to be prevented at all costs. Besides, a thorough investigation needs to be done into claims that pesticides have led to a steady decline in the population of several species of owls in India, as in case of vultures.  

Off late, studies have suggested that there may be at least 100 Forest owlets within the Melghat Tiger Reserve, which is now being considered to be the species stronghold. While other Tiger Reserves in the country are constantly in the limelight for all the wrong reasons, the forests of Melghat are thriving, along with the flora and fauna that inhabits it, including the owlet. It is our good fortune that Mother Nature has given us a second chance with the them and it is our solemn duty to protect and preserve this treasure. With sheer determination and participation, both from the government and the general public, it is indeed possible to give this magnificent bird an opportunity to avoid doom and give our future generations a chance to witness this gem of nature.


(1) FORKTAIL 14 (1998): 53-55 - The rediscovery of the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti (Link)
Authors: Ben F. King and Pamela C. Rasmussen

(2) FORKTAIL 15 (1998): 61-65 - Vocalization and behaviour of the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewittti (Link)
Authors: Pamela C. Rasmussen and Farah Ishtiaq

(3) FORKTAIL 16 (2000): 172-173 - Cronism in the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti (Link)
Authors: Farah Ishtiaq and Asad R. Rahmani

(4) FORKTAIL 16 (2000): 125-130 - Further information on the status and distribution of the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti (Link)

AuthorsFarah Ishtiaq and Asad R. Rahmani

(5) A Survey of Critically Endangered Forest Owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) in Central India (Link)

(6) Saving the Forest Owlet - Kishor Rithe (Link)

(7) Wikipedia.org - Forest Owlet (Link)

(8) Birdlife.com - Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewetti (Link)

(9) Times of India - Experts oppose proposal to declare Forest Owlet as state bird (Link)


(1) Credit: Nikhil Devasar 
Original - Kolkata Birds: Melghat Tiger Reserve, 2009 (Link)

(2) Credit: Tarique Sani
Original - Flickr: The critically endangered Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti [Explored] (Link)

(3) Credit: Copper Wiki
Original - Copper Wiki (Link)

(4) Credit: Dr Jayesh K Joshi
Original - EzineMark (Link)