Rediscovery of an Indian enigma: the Forest Owlet
by Pamela C. Rasmussen, from OBC Bulletin 27, June 1998.
This bird was not discriminated by me, but three specimens were included among those of 'brama' sent to Mr Hume. From the dates of the specimens I remember very distinctly about them. All were shot in the heavy jungle below the Satpuras, and all were shot late in the morning sitting alone on the tops of thin trees. This being such an extraordinary position for 'brama'. I shot the birds to make sure, but not having specimens of 'brama' to compare them with, stupidly took for granted they were only, brama. They are not uncommon in this dense jungle, and I have repeatedly seen others sitting on exposed trees. I do not think they are found in the Akrani [hills] or higher Satpuras, as I have never seen any Owl of the 'brama' type there. (1)
Until November 1997, the above was nearly all that was known about the Forest Owlet, Athene blewitti. James Davidson, an official stationed in Western Khandesh, had assembled the sole collection of birds from north of the Tapti River between Taloda and Shirpur, which happened to include the first three Forest Owlet specimens from western India. Only two other specimens had ever been collected, far to the east. None of the three collectors Davidson, Blewitt and Ball were professional ornithologists, and Davidson seemed a self-taught bird preparator, inventing odd techniques no one else used. After 1884, many years elapsed without any records of Athene blewitti. Whistler and Ticehurst, despite their comprehensive coverage of most Indian species in the monograph they were preparing, had only included one short reference on the species before their untimely deaths in the early 1940s (2). In 1952, S. Dillon Ripley wrote, the fact that no new information has come to light... is not evidence that the owlet is extinct (3). And then, sometime after the 1961 publication of the, Synopsis (4), Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen informed Dr Salim Ali and Ripley that he had taken one at Mandvi, Gujarat, in 1914. This record appeared to extend the range of the Forest Owlet right across the top of the Indian peninsula.
In 1974 Ripley and Ali began seriously laying plans to search for the owlet (5) and in the next two years they worked in forests along the Mahanadi River about 50 miles east of the type locality; at Melghat (6); and briefly in the Shahada Forest Division about 80 miles north of Dhulia, finding there that most of the area around the hills as well as along the river was completely devoid of any original forest (7). That April, Ripley sent S. A. Hussain to Meinertzhagen's locality, which was apparently once heavily forested, but there was no trace of this forest now except for a small undulating terrain of thin forest surrounded by cultivation (8). All these efforts met with the same result: no sign of the Forest Owlet.
Following this, several authors considered the species extinct. Not until Nigel Collar of BirdLife International and I discovered that Meinertzhagen's specimen was actually Davidson's fifth specimen, now remade and relabelled with false data, did we look further into the status of the Forest Owlet, when it gradually became evident that none of the four genuine sites had been searched!
In October 1997, Ben King (American Museum of Natural History) and David Abbott indicated they could join a search in November, and it seemed there would never be a better opportunity. Ben was especially keen as the Forest Owlet was the only tropical mainland Asian species he'd never seen. However, one of my museum colleagues rated our chances as just one in ten, and another gave us one in a hundred.
Starting on 13th November we spent ten days searching near the two eastern sites. Although it frequently seemed that at any moment our luck could change, it did not. With little time left, we drove west to Shahada, where Davidson had collected one specimen. Sadly the plains were entirely deforested, so we searched in the nearby degraded low foothills forest. In the middle of what had been already been a good morning for common birds, Ben quietly pointed out an owlet that he said was worth a close look. There, sitting near the top of a bare tree in the sun, was a small, chunky owl with short heavily white-feathered legs and huge claws, nearly unspotted grey-brown crown and mantle, strongly banded wings and tail, and contrasting underparts pattern; in short, everything necessary to make it a Forest Owlet. Hesitant at first to believe our eyes, and sure the bird would fly, David and I both started videotaping almost immediately; I approached it from below while David taped through his scope. However, it was utterly co-operative and only departed half an hour later when harassed by a roller, by which time my shaking arms could hardly hold the camera up. This near-mythical bird, which had already been surrounded by so many surprises, had done it again. It had survived, unseen by ornithologists for over a century and despite the loss of its plains habitat.
What does the future hold for the Forest Owlet? The fact that we found two individuals in fairly degraded hill forest seems hopeful; however, much more information is required to assess its true status, range and requirements. Considering its distinctive appearance and conspicuous habits, it is probably rare and local, or it could scarcely have escaped notice for so long. Surveys are urgently needed in order to promote its conservation, and strengthening of the protection of the single known site, which is actively undergoing degradation, will be essential.
Davidson, J. (1881) Rough list of the birds of western Khandesh., Stray Feathers, 10: 279-327.
Whistler, H. and Ticehurst C. B. (ms), Birds of India. Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Ripley, S. D. (1952) Vanishing and extinct bird species of India., J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc., 50: 902-906.
Ripley, S. D. (1961), A synopsis of the birds of India and Pakistan., Bombay Natural History Society, Bombay.
Ripley, S. D. and Ali, S. correspondence, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7008.
Ripley, S. D. (1976) Reconsideration of, Athene blewitti, (Hume)., J. Bombay Nat., Hist. Soc. 73: 1-4.
Hussain, S. A. (1976a) Melghat February 1976 Blewitt s Owl (Athene blewitti). Unpublished report, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7008.
Hussain, S. A. (1976b) Mandvi, Surat Gujarat. 19.4.76 to 21.4.76. Unpublished report, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7008.