Information about the Bird Forest Owlet
The forest owlet (Athene blewitti) is an owl that is endemic to the forests of central India. This bird is on the verge of extinction. This species belongs to the typical owls family, Strigidae. After it was described in 1873 and it was not seen after 1884 and considered extinct until it was rediscovered 113 years later in 1997 by Pamela Rasmussen. Searches for the species in the locality given in the label of the last collected specimen failed and it was discovered that the specimen had been stolen from the British Museum by Richard Meinertzhagen and resubmitted with a label bearing false locality information. It is known from a small number of localities and the populations are very low within the fragmented and shrinking forests of central India, leaving the species critically endangered.
The forest owlet is small (23cm) and stocky. It is a typical owlet with a rather unspotted crown and heavily banded wings and tail. They have a relatively large skull and beak. Unlike the spotted owlet, the forest owlet has the fewer and fainter spots on the crown and back. The upperparts 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 that is sometimes unmarked, especially in males. The primaries are darker and distinct. The wings and tail are banded with white trailing edges. A dark carpal patch on the underwing visible in flight. The facial disc is pale and the eyes are yellow.
The species epithet commemorates F. R. Blewitt, the collector of the first specimen that was obtained in December 1872 from Busnah-Phooljan near Basna on the Phuljar highway in eastern Madhya Pradesh. The specimen was sent to Allan Octavian Hume who described it in 1873.
The forest owlet was recorded in central India and known until 1997 from just seven specimens in museums collected in northern Maharashtra, and south-east Madhya Pradesh/western Orissa. The last record until then was based on a specimen claimed from Gujarat in 1914 by Richard Meinertzhagen. Searches in Gujarat had been futile until the species was rediscovered in November 1997 by a group of American ornithologists, including Pamela C. Rasmussen, rediscovered the species in the foothills of the Satpura Range, north-east of Bombay. The cause of the earlier failed searches was due to the resubmission of a stolen specimen with the falsification of locality data. In 2000 a survey of 14 forest areas across its former range located 25 birds (using call playback) at four sites in northern Maharashtra and south-western Madhya Pradesh, including three pairs at Taloda Forest Range and seven pairs at Toranmal Forest Range. No birds were found in a brief survey of its former eastern range in Orissa which may be due to habitat degradation. The species was also reported from the Chatwa and Padwa forests near Andhra Pradesh by K. S. R. Krishna Raju. Another survey in the states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat found the bird at a few locations in Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra.
The forest owlet has sightings from the Talda Forest Range, the Toranmal Forest Range, the Melghat Tiger Reserve, and the Khaknaar Forest Range, all in central India had dense to open deciduous forest. These forest areas had Tectona grandis, Lagerstroemia parvifolia, Boswellia serrata and Lannea grandis. Nest cavities were found in trees at a height of 5 to 8 metres in trees such as Soymida febrifuga. In most areas the trees were too young and lacking cavities suitable for nesting. A study reported that human disturbed forests with more clearings within the forests were preferred for foraging while another study found that they utilized areas with open canopy and dense undergrowth.
These owls typically hunt from perches where they sit still and wait for prey. When perched they flick their tails from side to side rapidly and more excitedly when prey is being chased. It was observed in one study that nearly 60% of prey were lizards (including skinks), 15% rodents, 2% birds and the remaining invertebrates and frogs. When nesting the male hunted and fed the female at nest and the young were fed by the female. The young fledge after 30-32 days.
The peak courtship season is in January to February during which time they are very responsive to call playback with a mixture of song and territorial calls.
They appear to be strongly diurnal although not very active after 10 AM, often hunting during daytime. On cold winter mornings they bask on the tops of tall trees.
Filial cannibalism by males has been observed.
They make several different calls. These include a hissing call of short duration. The song calls are short and mellow unlike those of most owls. They are usually disyllabic, "oh-owow" but sound monosyllabic and each note ascends and descends rapidly. The territorial calls have been transcribed as "kwaak kk, kwaa..kk". A contact call of "kee yah, keeyah" is given when the male brings food to the female at nest. The alarm calls is a "chirrur chirrur, chirrchirr" while a begging "keek, keek" calls is made when young or females seek food.
The forest owlet remains critically endangered, and the population in 2015 was estimated by Birdlife International at less than 250. It is thought that this owl has always been rare. The original specimens were collected in dense jungle, and the recent sightings in more open forest may represent suboptimal habitat. The forest in the plains in its range has been totally cleared, and there is pressure on the remaining forest resources.
A survey in 2011 in non-protected areas of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh confirmed the presence of the species at two locations. In Maharashtra a pair was observed (out of 7 pairs in 2004) in Toranmal Reserve Forest and in Madhya Pradesh six individuals were observed in Khaknar. An individual was located in Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary in the Thane district in 2014.
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