Wildbuzz: A dead owl tells many a tale

It is said, ‘If you seek the bird, the bird also seeks you’. Even if dead! Hats off, really, to the brown fish owl! This large owl (22 inch average length) is possessed with an uncanny ability to dwell under our noses and escape rambling birders, photographers and the annual species census.

While inhabiting the Shivalik check-dams situated in the north-west of Chandigarh, the owls took advantage of an opaque habitat comprising marshy edges, shore foliage as convoluted and deterring as the Gordian knot, desolate, dangerous nights, and jungles lorded over by ‘roving rosettes’, the leopards.

It took me eight years of arduous jungle searches (without using call lures) to conclusively establish the presence of the owls at the dams. I contracted a stiff neck looking up countless trees for their inscrutable perches. My clothes shredded by thorns, skin streaked red with long rakes. Wide-eyed nights spent under the stars with ears peeled for owl calls and shrieks but feet in jitters fearing vipers and cobras. A bout of bronchitis to boot, too, having waded unwisely into the owls’ watery habitat in the icy twilight of end-2021. I perspired but the wise owl was inspired, eluding me effortlessly.

It is not that I had never secured a glimpse of this Greta Garbo-like reclusive bird, flashing golden-yellow eyes and navy blue pupils. My first sighting was at Perch dam on May 10, 2014, at 10.40 pm but my rudimentary camera lens failed to secure a clear image. I literally flushed a pair sitting in ambush over a cove at Mirzapur dam on May 23, 2018, at 3.30 pm. I had binoculars. The pair flew to a far tree and watched me, their dirty white “bibs” under the chins bobbing anxiously. The distance teased my smartphone camera’s potency!

On Thursday, my search ended but in tragic circumstances. I found a dead owl on Siswan dam’s far shores, a likely casualty of fishing nets. I had entertained expectations during my search that were I to find an owl during the day, I would manage a glimpse on some high, thickly-foliaged branch. But here it was, lying dead at my feet amid lapping waters like a perfect museum specimen. Its unforgettable eyes open and eerie, pupils fresh enough to imprint reflections of solemn shore trees.

The dead owl lent a close physical examination of what I had, hitherto, encountered while thumbing ornithological tomes. The legs were adapted for aqua-hunting, largely devoid of feathers and allowed the owl to skim water and pluck out fish by extending the long, naked legs.

Scaled legs and claws of the dead brown fish owl at Siswan. (Vikram Jit Singh)
Scaled legs and claws of the dead brown fish owl at Siswan. (Vikram Jit Singh)

The lower half of the leg was covered with granular scales while claws were sharply pointed. “Soles of feet covered with prickly scales (to grip slippery prey). Claws large (four to each leg), well-curved, each with a sharp cutting edge beneath; middle claw also with a sharp keel on the side,” Dr. Salim Ali had written in his seminal work.

Mohali-based birder Prof. Gurpartap Singh, who parsed historical and contemporary records of the owl from the greater Chandigarh region, told this writer: “Apart from your records at Perch, Mirzapur and Siswan, an injured owl was rescued from Badasher, Morni, by Brig.Sarabjit S. Randhawa (retd.) on July 11, 2021, while another specimen was photographed at night by naturalist Aary in the foothills near Kuranwala and above the Mata Mansa Devi temple, Panchkula, on June 18, 2022. While most sources show the Chandigarh region as part of the owl’s distribution range, actual sightings are scanty. There is suitable habitat in the form of well-wooded tracts and perennial water bodies in the Chandigarh region. But we lack an estimate of how many specimens dwell here. The owl probably gets ignored due to not being seen during the day and not many bird watchers venturing to find it at night in inhospitable, impenetrable wilderness.”

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