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Only great fortune takes you to a great, wild bird

Like we estimate tigers, there is a need to estimate owl numbers and presence in India

The Indian eagle-owl.(Photograph by Neha Sinha)

By Neha Sinha

LAST PUBLISHED 17.03.2024  |  06:30 AM IST

On a cool March day, we set out to look for an owl.

The Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road blazed close by. The Metro ran like a silken ribbon on the horizon line. But we were in a secretive place, which felt like it was miles away from the city. It was a hilly forest with different kinds of colour in the Aravalli biodiversity park. The hill was wreathed in purplish dhau trees, with brows of white-flowering salai trees, and a mouth of red-blossoming woodfordia. On one side of the hill, on a quartzite cliff, an Indian eagle-owl had nested and raised chicks.

We were there to observe the owls. Their signs were everywhere. The stones were washed with egg-white droppings in several places—under secretive alcoves with a natural arrangement of stony shelves, on triangular stones, where the eagle owl perched gripping the rock with their talons, and on places with bristling, camouflaging grass. The quartzite and the grasses merged into a tapestry which was still being woven—by the owl family that lived in it, adding occasional splotches of white and motifs of feather. Underneath the hill, we found the remains of owl meals—the neat skull of a rat, other small bones, and braided, coughed-up pellets. The cornflower-blue March sky was the perfect background for finding the majestic bird that blends completely into rock faces, boulders and ridges.

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The Indian eagle-owl is an imposing bird with a wingspan of 6ft. It has mottled, daubed plumage that looks like a rock with veined pigments of colour coursing through it. The head has tufted feathers that look like horns. When the bird opens its eyes and turns its head effortlessly to look at you, you might feel a frisson of awe. The eyes are molten orange, the singular colour of lava. They pin you with the stare of a large predator—this is not a bird that fools around, this is a bird that misses nothing.

For the last month, New York has been mourning the loss of a similar bird, the related Eurasian eagle-owl. Flaco the owl was born in captivity and lived in a zoo for over a decade. Then, someone cut the netting of his cage. He flew out into the great and thronging city of New York. There were concerns on whether a captive bird could survive the “wilds" of a metropolis. Would he be able to hunt, find shelter, and avoid all the things his wild kin learn to avoid as they fledge? For exactly a year, from February 2023 to February 2024, Flaco survived the city. He would eat rats and pigeons, and he resisted capture. Social media accounts came up in his name, songs were written for him, and birdwatchers followed his adventures. “But Flaco’s life at the zoo was unremarkable. Only after he left did he begin to inspire true awe," wrote Ed Shanahan in The New York Times. On February 23 this year, Flaco was found dead. He had collided with a building, possibly a glass pane, and succumbed to his injuries. His death could symbolise a combination of other factors that impact owls today—disorienting or poisoning from toxins like rodenticides that hunting birds ingest, along with the threat of looming structures and wires.

Flaco’s story is extraordinary because celebrities are usually people. We have had celebrity tigers, like Macchali from Ranthambore. But you don’t have a lot of non-human celebrities in cities. Nor do you have many examples of a tight-knit, devoted urban community following the adventures of a celebrity animal, with sightings being reported daily, if not hourly. Now that Flaco has passed, New York state senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal has announced that a pending bill to make buildings safer for birds will be renamed as Feathered Lives Also Count, or the FLACO Act.

Flaco was a captive-born animal—one with a birth certificate, and the convenience of medical interventions. Yet Flaco’s shows us just how much an individual animal can mean once it lives a life of its own agency. For those who allow themselves to feel the awe of a huge, soundless bird flying over their heads at a time of the bird’s choosing—those onlookers sense how transformative the coming together of the wild and the mundane can be.

In India, wild owls fly above our heads in cities at nightfall, in forests and fields. Yet, they may not be doing very well. Owls get poisoned by the rampant and widespread use of rodenticide. They are heavily poached for their parts, which are used in black magic practices. They are illegally traded around Diwali. Most owls are likely impacted by light pollution. They are occasionally persecuted due to superstitious beliefs, even as they face habitat loss. Indian eagle-owls nest on rock faces, hillocks, and ridges. They become one with the dust and the naked heat of a bare rock face. Yet, these stones and ridges are heavily destroyed—for real estate and for mineral and boulder mining.


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That day, we didn’t find the eagle-owl in Gurugram. Fresh pellets meant that the bird wasn’t far away—it was probably watching us. That was fine. Only great fortune takes you to a great, wild bird.

We may not always be fortunate enough to feel the intensely wild brush of an owl sweep through our lives. Yet, we must put a few things in place for them. Like we estimate tigers, there is a need to estimate owl numbers and presence nationwide. Some owls are intensely connected to a particular kind of habitat. The Brown wood owl likes thick forests. The Brown fish owl likes streams and lakes, usually in forests. These are habitats under various threat. Scops owls love dead or aged trees with generous hollows. Interestingly, dead trees are often cut down for being worthless; though an owl may disagree with this system of valuation. Cities have Barn owls, Indian scops owls and Spotted owlets; sometimes they may have eagle-owls in their outskirts. But cities also have dizzying levels of poison. Studying owls and their threats may yield valuable information on the toxins in the system.

As a child, I remember my mother pointing out a Barn owl to me. It perched above a streetlight, with a wide, heart-shaped face which was turned towards us. Its eyes were pools, and it blinked them very slowly, with the knowledge that it could see very, very far through the thicket of the night. I had never seen a bird like this, with eyes that weren’t on the side of the head, but set like a person’s eyes are. And I had never seen a bird that seemed so circumspect, so much in command of itself. In the gloaming, it could see me better than I could see it.

“This isn’t a Barn owl! It’s a Snowy owl, and its flown here from snow-lands!" I told my mother. It was a moment of magic, laden with the kinetic excitement of possibility. Naturally, she nodded her head.

We never saw the bird again on that street, yet it left us with a deep longing for the untamed. I have looked for owls on street lamps ever since.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.

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