Forest Owlet: Facts, Habitat and Conservation

Forest Owlet

Save the Forest Owlet

 -Dr. Arvind Singh 
The Forest owlet is a species of small owl found in the forests of Central India. It was first described in 1873 and last seen in the wild in 1884. Thereafter, Forest owlet was considered extinct until it was rediscovered 113 years later in 1997 by American Ornithologists Ben King, Pamela Rasmussen, and David Abbott at Shahada near Taloda in the Nandurbar District of Maharashtra. Prior to its rediscovery, posters were printed and Salim Ali, the pioneer Ornithologist of India made a public appeal to look for the bird.


The scientific name of Forest owlet is Athene blewitti and it belongs to the Strigidae family of owls. The species epithet commemorates F. R. Blewitt, the collector of the first specimen that was obtained in December 1872 from eastern Madhya Pradesh. The specimen was sent to Allan Octavian Hume who described it in 1873.

Due to small and severely fragmented declining population, the species is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ in the Red List of Threatened Species of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Critically endangered species are those species which are facing threat of extinction in immediate future.

Distribution Range and Population Size:

Forest owlet is endemic across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. However, now it appears to be restricted to the Satpura Mountain Ranges in Central India along the Tapti River in northern Maharashtra and south-western Madhya Pradesh. Its present sites include Melghat Tiger Reserve, the Taloda, Toranmal and Mahendri Reserve Forests, Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary and Burhanpur and Khandwa forest divisions. Melghat is considered to be the species stronghold.

The Birdlife International estimates the global population to be between 50 and 249 birds and decreasing. Since 1999 various surveys have counted a total of 67 individuals.

Physical Characteristics:

The Forest owlet is small and stocky. It is a typical owlet with a rather plain crown and heavily banded wings and tail. Forest owlets have a relatively large skull and beak. The upper parts of the bird are dark grey-brown. The upper breast is almost solid brown and the sides are barred with a white central wedge in the lower breast. The primaries are darker and distinct. The wings and tail are banded with white trailing edges. A dark carpal patch on the under wing is visible in flight. The facial disc is pale and the eyes are yellow.

Sexes are similar, though males are said to be smaller than females with fewer markings on belly and breast.

Habitat and Ecology:

Forest owlet inhabits open dry deciduous forest dominated by teak along with a ground cover of weeds like wild basil and grasses. Its preferred forest habitat is an upper canopy at 15-25 meters with a 10-15 meter understory.

The bird is strongly diurnal and fairly easy to detect, frequently perching on prominent bare branches. Perched birds wag their tails from side to side rapidly and indulge in exaggerated head bobbing. On a cold winter morning, they are often seen sunning themselves from tall bare branches. 

Forest owlet preys on lizards, small rodents, nestling of other birds, frogs, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. These prey items are often caught in hollow tree trunks. 

The bird breeds between October and May, laying a brood of two eggs in a hole of soft wooded tree. At one nest, the young fledged at 30-32 days, after which they were dependent on the parents for at least another 40-45 days.

Threats:

Habitat loss, predation and hunting are the main threats to the survival of this bird species.

Forest, the habitat of Forest owlet in its range is being lost and degraded by illegal tree harvesting for firewood and timber and encroachment for cultivation and settlements. Furthermore, forest is also being lost and degraded due to forest fires and construction of irrigation dams. The proposed Upper Tapi Irrigation Project threatens 244 hectares of habitat used by the Forest owlet.

The bird suffers predation from a number of native raptors. Hunting is another threat to the survival of Forest owlet. The species is hunted by the local inhabitants. The body parts and eggs of Forest owlet are used for local customs, such as making of drums. 

Large scale use of pesticides in its range is also considered as an additional threat to the bird species.

Conservation:

The Forest owlet is protected under Schedule 1 of Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and its hunting or trapping is strictly prohibited in India. It is also listed on Appendix I and Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The following actions are needed for the conservation of Forest owlet. 

1. To regularly monitor the population trend of bird species.

2. To check illegal harvesting of trees within the habitat range of the species. 
3. To promote conservation awareness programs among local communities.

4. To control the use of pesticides in and around the habitat range of Forest owlet.

5. To train Forest staffs in the conservation of bird species. 

6. To publicize conservation among local young people; and 

7. To strictly enforce the Wildlife (Protection) Act and CITES.

Conclusion:

It can be concluded that the Forest owlet is facing threat of extinction mainly due to habitat loss, predation and hunting. Hence, it is the need of the hour to conserve the bird species for the maintenance of biological diversity and ecological stability.
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Dr. Arvind Singh is M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Botany with area of specialization in Ecology. He is an active Researcher having four dozen of published Research Papers in the journals of national and international fame.


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