I recently finished reading a book on owls and felt terrible for the birds. Apart from being hideously persecuted virtually world-wide through human history, they are relentlessly lynched by most other birds — even tiny ones, who mob them in flocks and make their lives miserable. All this, in spite of the facts that owls rid us of the kind of rodents that pass on such pleasant afflictions as the Bubonic plague, and, which in India, at least, are reputed to consume as much as 20 per cent of our stocks of grain. Sure, in some enlightened countries like ancient Greece, they were worshipped, but, by and large, they’ve been given terrible press.
As a result, the author stated, owls have become these solitary creatures of the after-hours (which, enhances their reputation for being harbingers of doom), who get together only to breed and (like all good yogis) prefer spending time in deep meditation alone in the recesses of a tree hollow or rocky cave. Their eyes and ears are superb and most fly as silently as wraiths. Their screeches and screams can curdle blood — if you have heard a barn owl in a dark park at night, you might agree and wonder what these birds with their romantic heart-shaped faces sound like when they exchange sweet nothings to each other while courting.
But I wondered if the birds were really as solitary as they’re made out to be. Here in India, probably, our most commonly encountered owl is the little owlet, a stumpy, grey-brown, little bird with a round head, big yellow staring eyes and a spotting of what looks like icing sugar on its head. It’s quite a cosmopolitan little owl and can be found in parks, gardens and groves in big cities, often perching on lampposts so it can snap up the moths and other insects that come to disco around them. But, more often than not, I’ve come across the birds in pairs. If you spot one, say on a gnarled old neem or peepul tree, you automatically start looking for more, and will usually be able to winkle them out. Sometimes, you can come across delightful families of five or six sleepy little owlets, squashed tightly side by side on a branch, peering down at you and wishing you would go away and not blow their cover to the heckling crows and mynas. In the cemetery next door, in the evenings, I can often hear them chattering querulously at each other at dusk as they sort out their hunting blocks for the night.
It is said that they are monogamous — that partners are faithful to one another (because there are so few of them left they can’t afford to dump their partner no matter how obnoxious or irritating he or she may be) — though, apparently, they give each other the freedom to go their own way and do their own thing outside of the breeding season. But, I do tend to believe, they like their own company even at such times. Some migratory owls — like the short-eared owl — may migrate in flocks of up to 20. If you flush one from a field, be sure to look sharp because there are likely to be others following it.
As for romancing owls, well, apart from parakeets, lovebirds and budgerigars, I can’t think of any other species (at the moment) that do so in a deeper or more meaningful way! Barn owls may well sound hideous while exchanging sweet nothings, but, let me tell you, they can teach you (and your children!) a thing or two about French kissing! Be a sport and don’t blow the whistle on them or summon up a lynch mob (there are enough of these lunatics running around, anyway). Look and learn, it may change your life forever!
Even better is what the little burrowing owls of the Americas get up to — something that even the author of the owl book had to acknowledge as an “exception”. These little guys and gals are found right down the American continent and have adapted a lifestyle that possibly inspired Woodstock or any similar love-fest. (Cringing killjoys may stop reading now.) They live in clustered colonies in underground burrows in fields and even golf courses, usually purloined or possibly on rent from ground squirrels. Like most of us, they live in nuclear families — husband, wife and chicks — and, let’s put it this way, are, perhaps, post-modern in their thinking. That usually means that the gentleman living in one burrow often toodles off next door (when the gentleman there has gone off for golf) and has a little fling with the golden-eyed nymphet living there, while his own golden-eyed nymphet may be paying a visit to the beefcake in a nearby burrow (who deliberately hasn’t gone for golf that morning). As a result, often the babies turn out belonging genuinely to only one parent in the nest. The little ones, too, are community babies and may just waddle into their neighbours’ nest and be brought up by the loving adults there, neither of whom may be their parents. Encouragingly, burrowing owls are fairly closely related to our own little owlet. So, if some of our little fellows get their H1 or whatever visas, who knows what wonderful things might happen when they go off to the States and then return here to begin start-ups!