Imagine you are a bristly grey rat or bandicoot (this may be easier than you think). You have just sneaked into an enormous godown stacked with gunny bags full of nutritious golden food: wheat! You begin nosing around, whiskers twitching, ears flicking this way and that. It is dark and quiet. You put your sharp little teeth to work on a sack and soon there’s a cascade of pure gold pouring out of it. You are joined by relatives, friends and rivals who do the same thing. The party’s begun.
Then above your squeaks of joy, you hear a sound that chills your marrow and freezes your blood. An eerie banshee-like shriek from the dark rafters high above. Then silence, not a sound. But you know it is there, watching, listening, and can only hope it hasn’t detected you. Clad in a glimmering mushroom-gold and cigarette-ash grey suit, spotted with white, its heart-shaped chalky-white face symbolises not love but a satellite dish picking up the tiniest whisper, rustle or squeak, even from deepest space. The creature has asymmetric ears with which to pinpoint you. And a cruel sharp hooked beak, not to mention grappling iron talons; the big dark eyes, peering, head bobbing, side to side, as it gets a fix. It must have been somewhere high up and behind you. Because you don’t hear a thing — just suddenly feel those talons plunge into your back. And then you’re dangling, squeaking to no avail, being swallowed headfirst, tail last. It’s over.
Welcome to the stealth bomber of the avian world – the barn owl. You can have the sharpest ears in the world, but this is one killer you will not hear coming. Scientists took what you could say was the ECG equivalent of soundwaves emitted by various birds as they flew. The common blue rock pigeon made an unholy racket — its pulse was thick and messy. The peregrine falcon had a sharply spiked pulse, like that of someone on a pacemaker. The barn owl, it just flat-lined, it had no pulse at all. Not a sound was picked up by super-sensitive microphones. The bird’s broad wings have fuzzy sound-deadening feathers along the leading edges to muffle the sound of air rushing over and under them as it flies.
This wraith-like quality is one of the reasons why the barn owl is the most successful owl species in the world. Its relatives are found nearly all around the globe, haunting crop fields, barnyards, gardens, even built-up areas, and parks — wherever rats, mice, lizards, frogs and other such delicious tidbits abound. As a rodent-control, it is par none: a single owl can account for 1,000 rats in a year — without poisoning its environment. Rats left on their own can destroy 20 to 30 per cent of our grain harvests, besides spreading various unpleasant diseases. Some farmers have at last appreciated that the barn owl, and, in fact, most owls, are a good thing to have around, and put up poles in their fields, from where they can keep a look out.
Most people, alas, fear owls. The barn owl has a spine-tingling repertoire of shrieks, screams and banshee-like screeches, and other owls (like the eagle-owl) have deep booming hoots and calls. Worst of all, they emerge at night and are extreme carnivores. So, we label them harbingers of death, evil and use their body parts for our own weird occult rituals. In India, owls are thought to be the vehicle of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. So, during Diwali — in what can only be the application of perverted logic — they are sacrificed in large numbers in Tantrik rituals in the hope that this will bring prosperity. Certainly, it will bring the rats out to play.
Of the more than 225 owl species in the world, we in India have around 30. The little spotted owlet can be seen after dark in parks, gardens, and even perched on lampposts outside petrol pumps (snapping up moths) nearly everywhere in India. Its close cousin, the forest owlet was “discovered” and “described” only in 1873 (by AO Hume, one of the founders of the Congress party!). Then it “disappeared” from its habitat, the dry, deciduous forests of central India, for the next 113 years, until it was rediscovered in 1997. First considered “critically endangered”, it was promoted to “endangered” as more and more turned up, but it still begs the question: why has the spotted owlet done all right while this little fellow is hanging on the edges of extinction?
Owls usually will be mobbed by other birds if caught out in the open, which is one reason, perhaps, why they prefer the afterhours. But, birds at least have a reason — owls will take their eggs and nestlings if they can. We have no reason to persecute them. Not unless we are rats.