7.
Forest Owlet
(Heteroglaux blewitti)
CR
Overview

The critically endangered Forest Owlet has an extremely small and fragmented population in central India. The species was originally placed with three others in the genus Athene, but has since been reclassified, now occupying its own genus Heteroglaux. Previously feared extinct, this species was rediscovered in 1997 in the state of Maharashtra, 113 years after the last confirmed record. Unlike most of its nocturnal relatives, this owlet is diurnal, hunting lizards, birds and rodents in daylight hours. Whilst surveys continue to discover more individuals, habitat fragmentation caused by the continued loss of deciduous forest is likely to result in a further decline in this species.

Urgent Conservation Actions

Urgent habitat protection. Engagement with community to halt cattle grazing, grass cutting, firewood collecting and forest fires in Forest Owlet territory. Awareness-raising activities and encouragement of alternative livelihoods including ecotourism.

Distribution
Central India in the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
Fact
The little owlet possesses disproportionately large talons compared to the rest of its body, which it uses to catch prey up to twice its size.
Media from ARKive
ARKive image - Forest owlet side profile
ARKive image - Back profile of forest owlet
ARKive image - Forest owlet front profile
ARKive image - Head profile of forest owlet
ARKive image - Forest owlet with head tilted
ARKive image - Forest owlet about to take flight
ARKive image - Forest owlet resting
ARKive image - Forest owlet pair at nest hole
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Strigiformes
Family: Strigidae

The Strigiformes comprise the owls, a predatory order whose raptorial adaptations to the feet and bill, and mainly nocturnal habits set them apart from other birds. This group is divided into two families: the Strigidae or true owls and the Tytonidae (barn owls). The Strigidae are a large family consisting of 24 genera and 198 species. Members of the Strigidae share a very similar body plan with large heads and round facial discs around the eyes, short tails and cryptic plumage. The forest owlet was first described as Heteroglaux blewitti by Hume in 1873. In later years it was placed in the genus Athene, along with the Burrowing Owl, Little Owl and Spotted Owlet. However, following establishment of morphological differences with the remaining three Athene species, including its distinctive bone structure, it has since been reclassified as Heteroglaux. It is the sole member of this monotypic genus.

The tree below shows the evolutionary relationships between this species and all other birds. The colours of the tree indicate EDGE scores with the red shades indicating the higher priority species; the bright red leaves correspond to the top 100 EDGE bird species. Further information on every species can be found by zooming in to its leaf on the tree.
Description
Size: 
20-23cm
Perhaps the most striking feature of this little owlet are its large, penetrating, yellow eyes, which are set in a rather square head. The head and nape of the neck are covered in light grey-brown plumage with tiny white flecks. This contrasts with the wings and tail which are a dark blackish-brown colour with white bands. Underneath, the top part of the breast is of a similar colour to the head, but quickly fades to white toward the belly and legs. The white flanks show a dark brown barring. The owlet possesses huge talons compared to its body size, which it uses to catch prey double its size. Females are slightly larger than males. The territorial call is a loud uwww or uh-wuwww. Other calls include a low, flat, buzzing hiss: shreeee or kheek; and repeated kwaak notes, which fluctuate in pitch.
Ecology

Unlike most other members of its family Heteroglaux blewitti is diurnal and crepuscular. It mainly feeds on small prey animals that live in understorey vegetation within the owlet’s habitat. Its primary prey is lizards, but it will also take amphibians, small birds, rodents and large invertebrates like grasshoppers.  Males have also be known to eat their own chicks, though it's uncertain why. With its large, powerful talons, the owlet has been known to take prey twice its size. The species hunts in the morning and evening in open areas with low ground cover, spending the afternoon roosting. The breeding season occurs between October and March and females lay two to three eggs in the cavity of a softwood tree. The eggs are incubated for approximately 30 days.

Habitat
It is thought that this owlet prefers subtropical and tropical dry deciduous forest. This is in contrast with most historic records of the species, which have come from moist deciduous forest or dense jungle. Recent sightings have been made in fairly open secondary deciduous forest, dominated by teak of less than 10m tall. The owlet is still found in its original habitat in Melghat Tiger Reserve where it prefers mixed deciduous forests with dense undergrowth and mature softwood trees.
Distribution

The Forest Owlet is endemic to central India. In 2000, 25 birds were located 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. More recently, this species has been located in five sites in the western Satpura Range (Maharashtra) as well as being found in Burhanpur and Khandawa. The protected Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra is the species’ stronghold, with over 100 individuals having been recorded there by 2005. Its breeding and resident range is currently estimated at 550km2

Population Estimate
The population is tiny and severely fragmented. It is currently estimated at 70-400 individuals.
Population Trend
Declining
Status

Critically Endangered

Threats

The main factor affecting this little owlet is loss and degradation of its forest habitat. In 2000, almost 5,000 hectares of Forest Owlet habitat were cleared to rehabilitate displaced people following the construction of a dam. With increasing human population, there remains intense pressure from local people on remaining forest resources. Illicit logging and use of the land for agriculture have also resulted in habitat degradation and fragmentation. Overgrazing by cattle and forest fires destroy the ground vegetation, removing the habitat in which the owlet’s prey live. The use of pesticides and rodenticides may pose an additional threat. This species suffers predation of the young from a number of native raptors, and faces competition for a limited number of suitable nest-sites from other cavity-nesting birds. It is hunted by local people, who use body parts and eggs for local customs and destroy the nests due to superstitious beliefs.

Conservation Underway

Excitement about the species rediscovery in 1997 led to a flurry of research projects that have increased knowledge of the species’ ecology, range and threats. The known populations of Forest Owlet are located within protected forest areas and reserves, including the species stronghold in the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. The Bombay Natural History Society, in partnership with Birdlife International, is working on a species recovery plan. They have undertaken recent assessments of existing sites, as well as previously unstudied sites, to gauge the current population size and range. Awareness raising brochures have been distributed to communities and articles about the forest owlet have been placed in local newspapers. Members of the local community are undergoing training to identify and locate birds to promote ecotourism. This species is listed on CITES Appendix I and II.

Conservation Proposed

A recent report by Jathar and Patil (2011) suggests several conservation strategies that need to be urgently implemented, with habitat protection being the highest priority. Livestock grazing needs to be controlled and firewood collection banned in Forest Owlet territory to preserve the understorey vegetation. Decaying wood also provides important habitat for the owlet’s prey species and should not be removed from protected areas. Bamboo harvesting and grass cutting should be restricted to certain times of the year. The use of pesticide and rodenticide should be discouraged in favour of traditional methods such as use of cattle urine. In the dryer months, local fire-fighting teams need to be formed to deal with any forest fires. Despite the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, protected areas are encroached upon constantly. Laws need to be enforced to stop illegal activities and to act as a deterrent for others. To reduce pressure on the forest, local communities should be encouraged to start soil and water conservation measures (watershed development) and also take up alternative livelihoods such as cultivation of local and medicinal plants and involvement in ecotourism. Large-scale education and awareness-raising programmes within communities are required to increase knowledge and encourage support of the Forest Owlet.

Links
References
BirdLife International (2013) Species factsheet: Heteroglaux blewitti. Downloaded from www.birdlife.org on 11/03/2013.

BirdLife International. (2001) Threatened birds of Asia: the BirdLife International Red Data Book. BirdLife International, Cambridge, U.K.

Chavan R., Pariwakam M. and  Bansod V (2013) Occurrence of the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewittiin Narnala Wildlife Sanctuary,Maharashtra. Jounral Care4Nature. Vol1(1): 33-35.)

Ishtiaq, F. and Rahmani, A. R. (2005). The Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti: vocalization, breeding biology and conservation. Ibis 147: 197-205.

Jathar, G. A. and D. N. Patil (2011) Reassessment of the status of Forest Owlet in its known distribution and evaluation of conservation issues. Final Report. Foundation for Ecological Conservation and Sustainable Development, India. Published by Watershed Organization Trust, Pune.

King, B. F. and P. C. Rasmussen (1998): The rediscovery of the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti. Forktail 14: 51-53.

Marks J. S., Cannings R. J. and Mikkola H. (1999) Family Strigidae (Typical Owls). In del Hoyo, J.; Elliot, A. & Sargatal, J. (editors). (1999). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 5: Barn-Owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions

Mehta Prachi, Jayant Kulkarni, D Patil, P Kolte and P Khatavkar 2007. A Survey of Critically Endangered Forest Owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) in Central India. Final Report. Envirosearch, Pune
Acknowledgements
Text compiled by Michelle Harrison. Factchecked by Girish Jathar.

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