They are no harbingers of bad luck

The Spotted Owlet (Athene brama) is one of the many species of owls that have adapted to the urban environment and can be seen quite often in Bangalore. Usually they prefer open habitats including farmlands, groves, and ruins to heavy and dense forests.

The spotted owlet has acquired a negative image and is associated with bad omens. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

It is a squat, white-spotted, greyish-brown owl, approximately the size of a Myna Bird. They have the typical large round head associated with owls and forward-looking yellow eyes. Two races are recognised in India and they are Athene brama indica of northern India and Athene brama brama of southern India. The northern and southern Indian populations intergrade and there is no dividing boundary. The southern race is usually smaller and darker than the northern race.

The owl, in Hindu mythology, is the vahana or vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, but has unfortunately acquired a negative image. The call of an owl is associated with bad omens and this superstition has resulted in their persecution. It is ironical that the species name brama is from the French name Chouette brame and indirectly refers to this owl’s Indian habitat by way of homage to Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation.

The Spotted Owlet is usually found in pairs or family parties of three or four. They are mostly active from dusk to dawn but can sometimes be seen during the day. When disturbed during the day they fly out to a nearby branch and bob their head and stare at the intruder. The Spotted Owlet is not intolerant of sunlight and its preference for the dark is explained by the behavior of the daytime birds towards it. The moment it is discovered by birds, it is mercilessly mobbed and harassed by them. To escape this unwanted attention, it prefers to spend the day in the seclusion of a tree hollow, leafy branch or a similar crevice or ledge of a building.

Spotted Owlet

  • Mostly active from dusk to dawn
  • Usually found in pairs or family parties of three or more
  • Feed on beetles, moths, locusts, bats and so on
  • Breeding season from November to April
  • Their call is a  chirurrr-chirurrr-chirurrr followed by cheevak, cheevak, cheevak

At dusk the Spotted Owlet emerges from its retreat to perch on points of vantage including street lamps and telephone/ electric wires. In urban areas street lights are a favourite hunting base as they attract a variety of insects that are hawked on the wing. They feed chiefly on beetles, moths, locusts and other insects. Earthworms, lizards, mice, bats, toads, small snakes and small birds are also taken.

The breeding season for the Spotted Owlet is from November to April. Courtship behaviour includes bill grasping, preening of the feathers of one bird by another, and ritual feeding. The female may call with the male, bob head and deflect their tail in invitation.

The nest is usually located in a natural hollow of a tree trunk, a hole in a dilapidated wall and between the ceiling and roof of a building – abandoned or occupied. The nest is sometimes lined with a little grass and feathers. Three or four spherical white eggs are laid and incubation begins with the first laid eggs, which results in a wide variation in the size of the chicks.

The spotted owlet is not intolerant towards sunlight. It prefers the dark to stay away from other birds. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

The young owlets are initially fed on insects such as cockroaches and later small prey such as mice. Of the total eggs laid only one or two chicks may fledge .The incubation period is about 28 to 33 days. The young fledge and remain with parents for a further three weeks. Both, the male and the female share equally in incubating the eggs and in raising the young.

The call of the Spotted Owlet can be described as a harsh screeching chirurrr-chirurrr-chirurrr followed by, or alternating with cheevak, cheevak, cheevak and a variety of other screeches and chuckles. The next time you hear one, don’t worry, for the caller is not a harbinger of bad luck. In fact like most members of the animal kingdom it is more sinned against.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the info, Vikram! If people start observing these birds they’ll soon realize how beautiful and interesting they are.

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