ELUSIVE Prowlers of the NIGHT
From the large sized spot-bellied Eagle Owls to the smallest scope owls, Sri Lanka is home to 12 different species of owls, with two of them found only here. Their large eyes are perfect for night time hunting. Rather bulky head, giving it a stout appearance and the ability to rotate 270o, keen eyesight even at very low light conditions, a Sharpe beak and talons all perfectly merge to produce the ultimate elusive prowler of the night – the owl.
Although owls are considered as nocturnal birds of prey, very few such as the endemic Chestnut Backed Owlet hunts during the day time. It was indeed a rare sighting at Deraniyagala, quite rare species nesting not within the jungle, but in a hole of a wooden utility pole close to a home garden. In this man made habitat, it was astonishing to see that the couple seemed undeterred to all the commotion that was going on.
Owl’s peculiar head bobbing is a result of their asymmetrically placed ears, which help them to pin point their prey in extreme low light conditions. Above all, owls can fly without the slightest hum thanks to their in-built modified feathers. Their calls, all different from one another may repel many in fear of the many myths and legends that have lingered for thousands of years. The Devil Bird or the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl perhaps has the most number of tales, for possibly it is the only bird which possesses a more human like call in the deep jungles of Sri Lanka. Although one might hear their call, to see one in the darkness needs much patience and luck.
Many owls feed on small mammals, or rodents, but the Fish owl as its name implies has specialized in fishing. As a rule of thumb, if you hear an owl, look for the tallest place possible – preferably an open area or even better a tall dead tree. ‘Owl pellets’ are one of the best ways scientists use to assess the diet of owls. These are in fact the undigested parts of the prey they consume such as bones, nails and fur, which they regurgitate and are often found close to their day roosting sites.
Seredib Scops Owl, one of the small owls recently discovered from the Island, is the last to be added to the list of endemic birds in Sri Lanka. The owl can be found in the lowland rain forest of Sri Lanka. It’s unusual ‘poo-ooo’ call was what helped to locate the bird, and interestingly is similar to a call of an amphibians found in the same habitat, called the Nagao’s ramanella, a type of pug-snout frog. Although till very recently Frog Mouths and Night Jars were considered to be owl- since they too are nocturnal hunters very much similar in appearance to owls, genetic evidences proved that they belong to an altogether different family but in Sinhala their native names still remains as “Bassa” for owls in Sinhala.