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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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