“…a cat with wings. It is a creature superbly adapted for hunting small rodents, watching silently till the time for the fast approach and moment of truth. Yet, like the cat, it can be noisy on occasions, rending the night with a never-ending series of raucous courting screams and hoots. Like the cat, it is a special favourite with people.” – John Sparks and Tony Soper describe the owl (rather accurately) in their book, Owls: Their natural and unnatural history.

 

There are 2 families of owls in the world Typical or True Owls (Strigidae) and Barn/Bay Owls (Tytonidae). True Owls make up over 90% of owl species, with around 220 living species. They are called so probably because they fit our general perceptions of owls large head with big coloured eyes and ear tufts (which many species in this family possess). There is a huge variation in size among the members of this family, ranging from the smallest owls to the largest owls in the world.

Tytonid owls comprise around 20 species of Barn and Bay Owls around the world. They are medium-sized owls that are morphologically different from Strigid owls in a few ways. The recognisable heart-shaped facial disc, smaller dark eyes and a long, compressed beak distinguish them easily. They also have longer legs and a serrated middle claw to preen their feathers.

Female owls are larger than males. Since most species of owls nest in holes inside trees, their eggs are white (no camouflage) and rounded in shape. The Indian Eagle-owl, and (at times) the other large owls, lay their eggs on bare ground on a rocky ledge.

Part I of Owls of Karnataka covered the eared owls (scops owls, eagle-owls, fish owl and Short-eared Owl). This part covers the owls that don’t have distinct ear tufts, thereby making their heads look rounded or flat. These include five species from the family Strigidae and three species from the family Tytonidae.

 

Family – Strigidae – Typical or True Owls

Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata)

Endemic to the Indian subcontinent, this is an unmistakable owl with the lack of ear tufts, dark eyes and concentric barring on the face. Their typical habitat is lightly wooded forests and groves of mature trees. When they fly from one perch to another, they are known to land on a branch within the foliage, unlike eagle owls that prefer outer branches of a tree.

Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata)

Brown Wood Owl (Strix leptogrammica)

This rare wood owl is found in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. It can be differentiated from the Mottled Wood Owl by the brown plumage and the rufous-brown facial disc with black around the eyes. The indranee subspecies is found in South and Central India.

Brown Wood Owl (Strix leptogrammica)

Jungle Owlet (Glaucidium radiatum)

True to its name, this tiny owlet is found in the forests of Karnataka. The dark brown bird is often seen early in the morning or late in the evening, with its curious yellow eyes staring back from the branch of a tree. These birds nest inside natural tree hollows or holes made by woodpeckers or barbets.

Jungle Owlet (Glaucidium radiatum)

Spotted Owlet (Athene brama)

Arguably the most common owl in urban and rural Karnataka, the chuckling call of this tiny owlet is familiar to most of us who’ve tuned our ears to the natural world at night. Many summers ago, when I first came across this bird on a busy street in Bangalore, it turned my perceptions upside down about owls being large and mighty birds.

The scientific name of the owl Athene brama is interesting in that it is dedicated to two different Gods. The genus name Athene comes from a relative of the Spotted Owlet the Little Owl (Athene noctua). The Little Owl is depicted with the Greek goddess Athena, probably due to her original role as goddess of the night. The species name brama is dedicated to the Hindu God Brahma due to the owl’s Indian distribution.

These birds are often seen in tree cavities or branches during the day. They are fairly common in areas with large trees, where each tree might hold its own resident pair. They are mobbed viciously by other birds that discover their presence during the day, making them chiefly nocturnal. In human-inhabited areas, they use streetlights as perches from which they hawk insects that are attracted to the light.

Spotted Owlet (Athene brama)

Brown Hawk-owl (Ninox scutulata)

The long hoot of this bird is a common feature across our forests at night, especially in the Western Ghats. This slender bird resembles a small hawk (like a Shikra) in its body shape (of course with the head of an owl). During the day, they roost in vegetation. At dusk, they perch upright on an open perch from which they sally flying out to catch insects and returning to the perch like a flycatcher. They are also known to hunt like nightjars, flying around while hawking insects in the air.

Brown Hawk-owl (Ninox scutulata)

 

Family – Tytonidae Barn Owls and Bay Owls

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

A white form flying silently at night over our plains and hills, even over Bangalore’s crowded traffic junctions that’s the Barn Owl for you. This is a medium-sized owl, about the size of a House Crow. The heart-shaped face, with beady black eyes, and a slender form make this one of the most recognisable owls for even the layperson. Their silent flight and phenomenal eyesight make them deadly nocturnal predators, especially to the small mammals and birds that make up most of their diet. They are known to pair for life (seeking out new pair bonds if one of the pair were to die).

Their shrieks and hisses are unmistakable. Unfortunately, it is also a reason for the bird’s persecution on account of superstition or plain irritability.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Sri Lanka Bay-owl (Phodilus assimilis)

The ripleyi subspecies is found in forests of the Western Ghats. It is a unique-looking species with a wide forehead, oblong-shaped facial disc and short ear-like tufts projecting off the top of the head. The name bay owl comes from the bay (reddish-brown) colouration of the wings.

This is a secretive owl that is rarely seen or heard. It roosts on the branches of large trees in the day and is active at night. The whistling call of the bay owl is described by Ali and Ripley as a “loud three-noted whistle, like man calling a dog”.

Sri Lanka Bay-owl (Phodilus assimilis)

Eastern Grass Owl (Tyto longimembris)

Possibly the rarest of Karnataka’s owls, this cousin of the ubiquitous Barn Owl has much darker upperparts that contrast with the underparts. Apart from museum specimens at the Natural History Museum (London) collected from the Brahmagiris in the early 20th century, there haven’t been any recent records of this bird from Karnataka.

 

References:

1. Praveen, J, Subramanya, S., Raj, V. M., 2016. A checklist of the birds of Karnataka. Indian BIRDS 12 (4&5): 89–118

2. Chandran, A., Rasmussen, P. C., Jahan, S., & Praveen J., 2016. The Pallid Scops Owl Otus brucei in south-western India, with notes on its identification. Indian BIRDS 12 (2&3): 56–63.

3. Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 58, 274. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.

4. Richard Gimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, 2011. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Second Edition; Oxford University Presss

5. Sparks, J.; Soper, T. (1970). Owls: Their natural and unnatural history. New York: Taplinger