Forest Owlet

~ presented by Birds of India

~ by Sumit Sen & Nikhil Devasar

'Bird of the Month'

? Nikhil Devasar
Melghat Tiger Reserve, March 2009

Scientific name: Athene blewitti.
                        Synonyms: Heteroglaux blewitti Hume (1873), Rasmussen and Anderton (2005).
                        This species is placed in the genus Athene, with which it shows considerable
                        resemblance. However, its original placement in its own genus, Heteroglaux, by
                        Hume may be justified based on current osteological evidence.
                        We follow Tim Inskipp's updated (2009) version of the Oriental Bird Club Checklist
                        which retains the species in genus Athene, as does the 2nd Edition (2008) of the
                        'Owls of the World' by Konig
                        Other common name: Forest Spotted Owlet, Forest Little Owl, Indian Forest Owlet,
                        Blewitt's Owl.

Local names: No known local names. Similar, Spotted Owlet is known as Khakusat, Khusattia in Hindi, Pingla in Marathi, and "'Dooda' in Korku dialect in Melghat"[45] area.

Status: Critically Endangered

The Forest Owlet belongs to the Strigidae ('true' or 'typical' owls) family, which is the larger of the two families of owls. The key feature that characterizes this family is the circular facial disk and large eyes. The talons have a smooth edge on the claw of the third toe. In comparison, tytonids show a heart-shaped facial disk and have a comb-like pectinate middle toe. Strigids are cryptically coloured, have a short-tailed compact structure, are large-headed, and are mainly nocturnal birds. They are often divided into 2 subfamilies: Buboninae and Striginae. They occupy virtually all terrestrial habitats, but most are forest dwelling[34,39,40].

The Strigidae family contains 192 species in 24 genera and 548 taxa and have a worldwide distribution[33]. 80% of strigids are to be found in the tropics. The genus Athene (derived from the goddess Athena in Greek mythology) contains four species: Spotted Owlet (Athene brama), Little Owl (Athene noctua), Forest Owlet (Athene blewitti - sometimes placed in Heteroglaux), Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia - sometimes placed in Speotyto)[4]. The 1st three occur in India.

The Forest Owlet is a restricted-range endemic limited to Narmada River Valley region in central India. Though placed in the genus Athene, it is thought to be closely related to Glaucidium[34].

First discriminated as new by F. R. Blewitt, the specimen collected from "Busnah-Phooljan" in eastern Madhya Pradesh in December 1872 was described by A. O. Hume in 1873 in 'Stray Feathers'[20].
The species went missing from 1884, and was considered extinct. 113 years later it was rediscovered in November 1997 by Ben King, Pamela Rasmussen and David Abbott at Shahada near Taloda in the Nandurbar District of Maharashtra[5]. Part of the delay in rediscovery is attributed to misleading collection records kept by Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen[6].

? Nikhil Devasar
Melghat Tiger Reserve, March 2009

Description: A compact 23cm square-headed dark grey-brown owlet with faintly spotted crown and mantle.  A brown breast band below the white throat separates the unmarked white lower breast, legs and under-tail coverts. The sides and flanks are prominently and broadly banded. The scapulars have large central white spots and the upperwing coverts are uniform brown, the white spots being confined to the greater coverts near the leading edge of the wing. There are broad distinct white bars across the tail feathers, one being terminal. The white supercila is rather straight and the hind collar is almost indistinguishable. The auriculars blend with surrounding areas and lack a white rear border. In flight the species shows a dark carpal patch on  the underwing. The broad wings and tail appear strongly banded and the dark breast band contrasts with the white of the rest of the plumage. Sexes are similar, though males are said to be smaller than females with fewer markings on belly and breast[22]. The Forest Owlet appears to be a crepuscular and diurnal forager.
Habits: Perched birds wag their tails from side to side rapidly and indulge in exaggerated head bobbing[13]. On cold winter mornings they are often seen sunning themselves from tall bare branches.

? Nikhil Devasar
Forest Owlet (left) and Spotted Owlet

Call: Has a broad repertoire of calls including hissing noises and alarm calls. The bisyllabic "oh-owow" or "uh-wuwww" calls have a loud mellow musical quality about them and other calls include a "kwaak-kk" and "chirrur...chirrur" and buzzing 'shree' notes[4,8,13].

Local endemic across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Orissa [see map], the Owlet now appears to be restricted to the Satpuda Mountain ranges in central India. Historically, known from specimens collected from Phuljar
(21013'N 82051'E), Kharhial (20017'N 82046'E), Taloda (21032'N 74011'E) and Sandesh (21032'N 74030'E), it is currently known to survive only in parts of the Satpura Range along the Tapti River in northern Maharashtra and south-western Madhya Pradesh. Present sites include Melghat Tiger Reserve (21040'N 77020'E), the Taloda, Toranmal & Mahendri Reserve Forests, Yawal WLS, and Burhanpur & Khandawa forest divisions. Melghat is considered to be the specie's stronghold. There are also unconfirmed reports of recent sightings from Chatwa and Padwa forests near Andhra Pradesh[4,5,7,11,19,23,43].
Current range: Between 22
000'N 74000'E, 22000'N 77035'E and 21010'N 74000'E, 21010'N 77035'E.

Range Map
Recent observations from area bounded in red
Population: Birdlife International estimates the global population to be between 50 and 249 birds[2] and decreasing. Since 1999, various surveys have counted a total of 67 individuals at Toranmal(14), Mahendri(1), Khaknar(4), Yawal(2),
Khandwa(24), and Melghat Tiger Reserve(22)[19]. The surveys indicate the presence of a more widespread population than previously thought, and this may auger well for the future of the species.
Illegal felling, forest clearing, forest fires, anthropogenic pressure, predation, use of pesticides and superstitions among tribals are a continuing threat to the survival of the small population.

Habitat: The Forest Owlet inhabits the Narmada Valley dry deciduous forests [IM0207][38] which represents the seasonally influenced teak (Tectona grandis) dominated forests along the Narmada River Valley, flanked by the Vindhya and Satpura Mountain Ranges. Its preferred forest habitat has an upper canopy at 15-25 meters with a 10-15 meter understory. Although previously known to inhabit moist deciduous forest or dense jungle, the current range covers open teak forest at about 400-600 meters altitude.

? Nikhil Devasar
Forest Owlet habitat ~ Melghat Tiger Reserve

Food: Mainly lizards and small rodents. Also takes amphibians, invertebrates and nestlings.[19]
Breeding: Breeds between October to March. Lays two eggs in a hole in a softwood tree. The incubation period is estimated at 30 days.

Conservation status: "This species has a tiny, severely fragmented population, known from less than ten recent locations. It is likely to be declining as a result of loss of its deciduous forest habitat. Although surveys continue to discover more individuals, these factors lead to its present classification as Critically Endangered. Further information may warrant its downlisting to a lower category of threat in future.[1]

Conservation measures: The Forest Owlet is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and its hunting or trapping is prohibited in India. It is also listed on CITES Appendix I and II.

References and sources:
1. BirdLife International (2009) Species factsheet: Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti.
2. BirdLife International Heteroglaux blewitti in: IUCN 2009. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.1.
3. BirdLife International 2003. Heteroglaux blewitti (Forest Owlet). In Threatened birds of Asia: The BirdLife International Red Data book. Cambridge: BirdLife International.
4. Wikipedia: Forest Owlet
5. King, B. F. & P. C. Rasmussen (1998) "The rediscovery of the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti". Forktail 14: 53-55.
6. Rasmussen, P. C. & Collar, N. J. (1999). "A major specimen fraud in the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux (Athene auct.) blewitti". Ibis 141: 11-21.
7. Rasmussen PC & NJ Collar (1998). "Identification, distribution and status of the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti". Forktail 14: 41-49.
8. Rasmussen, P. C. & Ishtiaq, F. (1999). "Vocalizations and Behaviour of Forest Spotted Owlet Athene blewitti". Forktail 15: 61-66.
9. Rasmussen, P. C. (1988) "Rediscovery of an Indian enigma: the Forest Owlet". OBC Bulletin 27.
10. Ishtiaq, Farah (2000): Red Data Bird: Forest Spotted Owlet: Newsletter for Birdwatchers: 40-3: May-June: 29-31
11. Ishtiaq F & Rahmani AR (2000). "Further information on the status and distribution of the Forest Owlet Athene blewitti in India". Forktail 16: 125-130.
12. Ishtiaq F & Rahmani AR (2000). "Cronism in the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti". Forktail 16: 172-174.
13. Farah Ishtiaq, Asad R. Rahmani & Pamela Rasmussen (2002). Ecology and behaviour of the Forest Owlet (Athene blewitti) in Ecology and Conservation of Owls: Proceedings of the Owls 2000. ISBN 0643067949.
14. Ishtiaq, F. and A. R. Rahmani (2005) The Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti: vocalization, breeding biology and conservation. Ibis:147(1): 197-205
15. Jathar G. (2002) The Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti in Western Khandesh, Mistnet Vol.3 No.3 (July-Sept) pp.3
16. Jathar G. (2003): Saving the mysterious Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti, Mistnet, Vol.4, No.3&4(Jul-Dec) pp.9-10
17. Jathar, G. A, S. S. Talmale, M. S. Pradhan and A. R. Rahmani (2005) Mammalian prey species of the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti Hume. Journal of Bombay Natural History Society 102(2): 230-232
18. Jathar, G. and A. R. Rahmani (2004) Ecological studies of the Forest Spotted Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti. Final report BNHS: 1-77.
19. 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
20. Hume, A. O. (1873) Stray Feathers Vol. 1: 468.
21. Whistler, H. and Ticehurst C. B. (ms), Birds of India. Smithsonian Institution Archives
22. Rithe K. (2003): "Saving the Forest Owlet", Sanctuary Asia XXII (Feb): 30-33
23. Kasambe. R, Pande. S, Wadatkar J, Pawashe. A, (2004): "Additional Records of the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti" in Melghat Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra, Newsletter for Ornithologists: Vol. I-II: 12-14.
24. Kasambe R., Wadatkar J., Bhusum N.S., & Kasdekar F.(2005): "Forest Owlets Heteroglaux blewitti in Melghat Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra", Newsletter for Birdwatchers: Vol.45-III : 38-40
25. Ripley, S. D. (1952) Vanishing and extinct bird species of India., J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc., 50: 902-906.
26. Ripley, S. D. (1961), A synopsis of the birds of India and Pakistan., Bombay Natural History Society, Bombay.
27. Ripley, S. D. (1976) Reconsideration of, Athene blewitti, (Hume)., J. Bombay Nat., Hist. Soc. 73: 1-4.
28. Baker, S. (1927) The Fauna of British India, Cylone and Burma (Second Edition). Birds Vol. 4: 441
29. Davidson, J. (1881) Rough list of the birds of western Khandesh., Stray Feathers, 10: 279-327.
30. Ali, S. A. and S. D. Ripley (1969) Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Oxford University Press, Bombay. Vol.3
31. Claus K?ig and Friedhelm Weick (2008) Owls of the World. Christopher Helm. ISBN-13: 9780713665482
32. Tim Inskipp (2009) Checklist of birds of the region covered by the Oriental Bird Club (Dickinson sequence). OBC
33. Bird Base: Heteroglaux blewitti
34. The Internet Bird Collection - Typical Owls (Strigidae)
35. Bird Forum - Forest Owlet
36. Oriental Bird Images
37. WildIndia - Forest Owlet by Raju Kasambe
38. Narmada Valley dry deciduous forests (IM0207): World Wildlife Fund 2001
39. Animal Diversity Web - Family Strigidae
40. Systematics and taxonomy of Australian birds by Les Christidis, Walter Boles
41. 'Natural History and Classification' of Owls
42. Eugene W. Oates (1889-98). The fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma.
43. Rithe K. (2004) Yawal - Jewel in the crown of the Khandesh

44. Delhibird; Species Guide: Forest Owlet
45. Raju Kasambe, pers. comm. 1/11/09

© Sumit Sen 2009
Images copyright
© Nikhil Devasar



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