|Forest owlet at Melghat Tiger Reserve|
|Current records in red and historic records in grey|
The forest owlet (Athene blewitti) is an endangered owl that is endemic to the forests of central India. The species belongs to the typical owls family, Strigidae. First described in 1873, it was not seen after 1884 and considered extinct until it was rediscovered 113 years later in 1997 by Pamela Rasmussen. Searches for the species in the locality given on the label of the last collected specimen failed and it was discovered that the specimen had been stolen from the British Museum by Richard Meinertzhagen and resubmitted with a label bearing false locality information. It is known from a small number of localities and the populations are very low within the fragmented and shrinking forests of central India.
Since its rediscovery in 1997, this species has been found at a number of new locations, several of which appear to hold significant populations. The population estimate has therefore been revised upwards, leading to its reclassification from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Nevertheless, the total known population remains very small and fragmented and is inferred to be declining as a result of the loss and degradation of its deciduous forest habitat.
The forest owlet is small (23 cm) and stocky. It is a typical owlet with a rather unspotted crown and heavily banded wings and tail. They have a relatively large skull and beak. Unlike the spotted owlet, the forest owlet has the fewer and fainter spots on the crown and back. The upperparts are dark grey-brown. The upper breast is almost solid brown and the sides are barred with a white central wedge in the lower breast that is sometimes unmarked, especially in males. The primaries are darker and distinct. The wings and tail are banded with white trailing edges. A dark carpal patch on the underwing visible in flight. The facial disc is pale and the eyes are yellow.
The species was described by Allan Octavian Hume in 1873 based on a specimen that he obtained from F. R. Blewitt, who had collected it in December 1872 from Busnah-Phooljan near Basna on the Phuljar highway in eastern Madhya Pradesh. Francis Robert Blewitt (1815-1881) and his brother William Turnbull Blewitt (1816-1889) were sons of Francis Robert Blewitt (1787-1836) who served in the 8th Light Dragoons. Robert (as junior was referred to) was also in the army while William worked as a customs officer. Both were interested in birds and collected eggs and specimens. Valentine Ball mention that Robert collected extensively for him, but it is said that the specimens bear the labels of William and some credit the epithet to William Turnbull Blewitt. Some have suggested that William may have used his brother's name to avoid being questioned on his whereabouts as Hume was the head of the customs department. Hume placed the species in the genus Heteroglaux which he separated from Athene based on features of the skull. A molecular phylogenetic study in 2018 however identified it as being a member of the Athene clade.
Distribution and habitat
The forest owlet was recorded in central India, and known until 1997, from just seven specimens in museums collected in northern Maharashtra, and south-east Madhya Pradesh or western Orissa. The last record until then was based on a specimen claimed from Gujarat in 1914 by Richard Meinertzhagen. Searches in Gujarat had been futile until the species was rediscovered in November 1997 by a group of American ornithologists, including Pamela C. Rasmussen, rediscovered the species in the foothills of the Satpura Range, north-east of Bombay. The cause of the earlier failed searches was due to the resubmission of a stolen specimen with the falsification of locality data.
In 2000, a survey of 14 forest areas across its former range located 25 birds (using call playback) at four sites in northern Maharashtra and south-western Madhya Pradesh, including three pairs at Taloda Forest Range and seven pairs at the Forest Range of Toranmal in Nandurbar District. No birds were found in a brief survey of its former eastern range in Orissa which may be due to habitat degradation. The species was also reported from the Chatwa and Padwa forests near Andhra Pradesh by K. S. R. Krishna Raju. Another survey in the states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat found the bird at a few locations in Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra.
The bird has sightings from the Talda Forest Range, the Toranmal Forest Range, the Melghat Tiger Reserve, and the Khaknaar Forest Range. All these places in central India had dense to open deciduous forests, which had Tectona grandis, Lagerstroemia parvifolia, Boswellia serrata and Lannea grandis. Nest cavities were found in trees, such as Soymida febrifuga, at a height of 5.0–8.0 m (16.4–26.2 feet). In most areas, the trees were too young and lacking cavities suitable for nesting. A study reported that human disturbed forests with more clearings within the forests were preferred for foraging while another study found that they utilized areas with open canopy and dense undergrowth.
These owls typically hunt from perches where they sit still and wait for prey. When perched they flick their tails from side to side rapidly and more excitedly when prey is being chased. It was observed in one study that nearly 60% of prey were lizards (including skinks), 15% rodents, 2% birds and the remaining invertebrates and frogs. When nesting the male hunted and fed the female at nest and the young were fed by the female. The young fledge after 30–32 days.
The peak courtship season is in January to February during which time they are very responsive to call playback with a mixture of song and territorial calls.
Filial cannibalism by males has been observed.
They make several different calls. These include a hissing call of short duration. The song calls are short and mellow unlike those of most owls. They are usually disyllabic, "oh-owow" but sound monosyllabic and each note ascends and descends rapidly. The territorial calls have been transcribed as "kwaak … kk, kwaa..kk". A contact call of "kee yah, kee…yah" is given when the male brings food to the female at nest. The alarm calls is a "chirrur… chirrur, chirr…chirr" while a begging "kee…k, kee…k" calls is made when young or females seek food.
The forest owlet remains critically endangered, and the population in 2015 was estimated by Birdlife International at less than 250. It is thought that this owl has always been rare. The original specimens were collected in dense jungle, and the recent sightings in more open forest may represent suboptimal habitat. The forest in the plains in its range has been totally cleared, and there is pressure on the remaining forest resources.
A survey in 2011 in non-protected areas of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh confirmed the presence of the species at two locations. In Maharashtra, a pair was observed (out of 7 pairs in 2004) in Toranmal Reserve Forest, and in Madhya Pradesh, six individuals were observed in Khaknar. An individual was located in Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary in the Thane district in 2014.
- BirdLife International. 2018. Heteroglaux blewitti. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22689335A132251554. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22689335A132251554.en. Downloaded on 01 January 2019.
- Ripley, S. D. (1976). "Reconsideration of Athene blewitti (Hume)". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 73: 1–4.
- Rasmussen, C. P.; King B. F. (1998). "The rediscovery of the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti" (PDF). Forktail. 14: 53–55. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-10-11.
- Rasmussen, P. C.; Collar, N. J. (1999). "Major specimen fraud in the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux (Athene auct.) blewitti". Ibis. 141 (1): 11–21. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1999.tb04258.x.
- Rasmussen PC; NJ Collar (1998). "Identification, distribution and status of the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti" (PDF). Forktail. 14: 43–51. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-07-04.
- Hume, A. O. (1873). "Novelties". Stray Feathers. 1: 464–483.
- Ball, V. (1878). "From the Ganges to the Godaveri". Stray Feathers. 7: 191–235.
- Jobling, James A. (2010). The Helm dictionary of scientific bird names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 73.
- The Enigma of the Forest Owlet
- Koparde, Pankaj; Mehta, Prachi; Reddy, Sushma; Ramakrishnan, Uma; Mukherjee, Shomita; Robin, V. V. (2018). "The critically endangered forest owlet Heteroglaux blewitti is nested within the currently recognized Athene clade: A century-old debate addressed". PLOS ONE. 13 (2): e0192359. Bibcode:2018PLoSO..1392359K. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0192359.
- Rasmussen, PC; Ishtiaq, F. (1999). "Vocalizations and Behaviour of Forest Spotted Owlet Athene blewitti" (PDF). Forktail. 15: 61–66. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-11-16.
- Rasmussen, P.C.; N.J. Collar (1999). "Major specimen fraud in the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux (Athene auct .) blewitti". Ibis. 141: 11–21. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1999.tb04258.x.
- Bird list at ebird.org
- "Mahal Eco Campsite". Gujarat Tourism. Retrieved 2017-01-25.
- Significant bird records and local extinctions in Purna and Ratanmahal Wildlife Sanctuaries, Gujarat, India-PRANAV TRIVEDI and V. C. SONI
- "Toranmal - Nandurbar, Maharashtra : Hill Stations". Whereincity.com. 2007-07-02. Retrieved 2010-09-27.
- Ishtiaq F, Rahmani AR (2000). "Further information on the status and distribution of the Forest Owlet Athene blewitti in India" (PDF). Forktail. 16: 125–130. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-07-04.
- Mehta, P; J. Kulkarni; D. Patil (2008). "A survey of the Critically Endangered Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti in Central India". BirdingASIA. 10: 77–87.
- Prachi, M; J Kulkarni; D. Patil; P. Kolte; P Hatavkar (2007). A Survey of Critically Endangered Forest Owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) in Central India. Final Report. Pune: Envirosearch.
- Reuven Yosef; Satish A. Pande; Amit P. Pawashe; Raju Kasambe; Lynette Mitchell (2010). "Interspecific interactions of the critically endangered Forest Owlet (Athene blewitti)". Acta Ethologica. 13 (1): 63–67. doi:10.1007/s10211-010-0070-9.
- Jathar GA, Rahmani AR (2012). "Habitat utilization by Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti in Toranmal Reserve Forest, India". Care4Nature. 1 (1): 18–30.
- Farah Ishtiaq; Asad R. Rahmani; Pamela Rasmussen (2002). "Ecology and behaviour of the Forest Owlet (Athene blewitti)". In Ian Newton; Rodney Kavanagh; Jerry Olsen; Iain Taylor. Ecology and conservation of owls. CSIRO Publishing. ISBN 978-0-643-06794-3.
- Ishtiaq F, Rahmani AR (2000). "Cronism in the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti" (PDF). Forktail. 16: 172–174. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-08-28.
- BirdLife International (2015) Species factsheet: Heteroglaux blewitti. Downloaded from "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-07-10. Retrieved 2014-04-13.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) on 18/07/2015.
- Jathar, G. A.; D. N. Patil (2011). Reassessment of the status of Forest Owlet in its known distribution and evaluation of conservation issues. Final Report (PDF). Foundation for Ecological Conservation and Sustainable Development, India. Published by Watershed Organization Trust. ISBN 978-81-86748-28-2.
- Laad, S; Dagale, R (2014). "First report of forest owlet Heteroglaux blewitti from Tansa wildlife sanctuary (Western Ghats), Maharashtra, India". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 111 (2): 134. doi:10.17087/jbnhs/2014/v111i2/72238.
- Kasambe, R., Pande. S., Wadatkar, J. & Pawashe, A. (2004) Additional Records of the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti Hume, 1873 in Melghat Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra, Newsletter for Ornithologists 1(1-2):12-14.
- Jathar, G. A. and A. R. Rahmani (2004). Ecological studies of the Forest Spotted Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti. Final Report. Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, India.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Athene blewitti.|
- OBC Bulletin: Rediscovery of an Indian enigma: the Forest Owlet by Pamela C. Rasmussen
- Owlet sighted after 113 years (PDF)