Is the number of raptors declining in India? What are the conservation efforts initiated by India?

Many species of birds in India are dying out, says the first major report in our country on the state of bird populations. Things are particularly bad for the birds of prey, due to reasons like habitat destruction, hunting and pet trade. Several raptors like various species of eagles and harriers have come down in numbers, but vultures are the worst hit. Seven out of the nine vulture species found in India, have been decreasing in number since the early 1990s, mostly poisoned by an anti-inflammatory drug given to livestock.

India is certainly taking steps to conserve these birds, and our government has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to save several species of migratory birds of prey in Africa and Eurasia. This is usually called the Raptor MoU.76 species are covered by this, of which 50 are in India including the endangered vulture. The government has also launched the Vulture Action Plan 2020-25, for saving the vultures. We are also a member of the SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) consortium.

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Why the tawny owl is considered a common raptor?

The tawny owl, or Strix aluco, is a medium-sized owl which belongs to the family Strigidae. This owl is found in woodlands across Eurasia and North Africa. It is sometimes called the brown owl because of its colouring, which is brown and sometimes gray. Its underparts are pale with dark streaks and it has a large, roundish head with dark eyes. Ear tufts are absent but it has exceptional hearing due to a symmetric ears. In fact, this owl’s hearing is 10 times better than a human’s! Often it uses only its ears while hunting at night.

This owl is non-migratory and fiercely territorial. So much so, that if a young owl fails to find a vacant territory within its home range, it will rather starve to death than move away! The tawny owl has the most iconic owl call or whistle. Its plaintive ‘Tu-whit tu-whoo’ has been immortalized in literature and films, as the quintessential owl cry.

It eats worms, insects, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and smaller birds. It usually creeps up on its prey with silent wings while the hapless victim is perched in a tree sleeping, or moving on the ground.

The tawny owl nests in tree holes, old magpie nests and cavities in buildings. The female typically lays around 2 to 3 glossy, white eggs which she incubates over a period of 30 days. Both parents look after the chicks for 2 to 3 months even after they have learnt how to fly. This species is very aggressive when defending their young. It will attack any intruder by striking them with its sharp talons. Because its flight is silent, it may not be detected until it is too late to avoid the danger. Dogs, cats and humans have been assaulted by them, sometimes without provocation.

The tawny owl is categorized under ‘Least Concern’ in the IUCN Red List, due to its stable population and wide range.

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What are the specific features of the spotted owlet?

The spotted owlet, or Athene brama, is an elegant little raptor that belongs to the family Strigidae. It is grayish-brown in colour with white spots all over its body. It has a roundish head, a pale facial disc, yellow eyes and prominent white eyebrows. Its upperparts are gray-brown - heavily spotted with white and its underparts are white - streaked with brown.

It is found in tropical Asia from mainland India to South-east Asia, where it prefers open to semi-open areas near farmland or human habitation. It is well adapted to living in and near cities due to the availability of rodents and insects like rats and cockroaches in these areas. It is known to use street lamps as hunting bases, since the light attracts insects which it can easily catch.

It is generally active at dusk and before dawn, but is sometimes seen during the day. At other times, it may be seen roosting in small groups or as a pair in tree holes or on branches. It also hunts bats, squirrels, toads, small snakes and scorpions. Its call is a loud

‘chirurr-chirurr-chirurr’ which ends in a ‘chirwak-chirwak’.

These owls are cavity nesters and females will lay 3 to 5 eggs at a time. Incubation lasts for 26 to 31 days and both parents share incubation duties. It is listed under ‘Least Concern’ in the IUCN Red List, since its population has remained stable over the years.

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What are the characteristics of the jungle owlet?

The jungle owlet, or Glaucidium radiatum, is a small, rotund bird that belongs to the family Strigidae. It is found in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan - where it inhabits scrub and deciduous forests in the Himalayas from Dalhousie in the west, to Bhutan in the east. It is also found south through peninsular India to north and east Sri Lanka.

This owlet is dark brown on its upper parts and finely barred all over in brown and white. For this reason it is also called the barred jungle owlet. It has a rounded head, brownish wings and a narrowly barred tail. It has a whitish patch on the chin, upper chest and in the centre of the abdomen. It has yellow eyes, a greenish beak and black claws. Its facial disc is indistinct and the false eyes that many owlets have at the back of their heads (to Scare off predators), is missing in this species.

This owl is most active at twilight and an hour or so before dawn. Such birds are called ‘crepuscular’. Although they will fly and hunt during the day (especially if the weather is cloudy), they are most likely to be seen roosting on a tree branch in the daytime. Their call is a loud musical trill, ‘praorr-praorr-praorr-praorr’.

This little raptor is an insect connoisseur! Its diet mainly consists of beetles, grasshoppers, locusts and cicadas. It also eats molluscs, lizards, mice and small birds. It is very tenacious and fearless when it comes to hunting and has strong talons to help it catch its prey.

This owlet makes its nests in natural tree hollows or abandoned woodpecker holes. Not much information exists about the incubation or breeding habits of this species. The female lays 3 to 4 roundish, white eggs. Most nest sites are 3 to 8 meters above the ground. This species is listed under ‘Least Concern’ in the IUCN Red List due to its large range.

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What are the peculiarities of Hume’s hawk-owl?

Ninox obscura, called Hume’s hawk-owl or Hume’s boo-book, is a medium-sized bird which belongs to the family Strigidae. It is endemic to the Andaman Islands in India, where it prefers moist lowland forests and mangroves. It also inhabits trees around cultivated fields, urban parks and rubber plantations. This owl has a chocolate brown plumage and a small whitish spot on its forehead between its eyes. Its head is round and its facial disk is ill-defined. Since ear tufts are absent in this species, it tends to look more hawk-like than others. Its underparts are paler than its upperparts and it has a long, banded tail. Its eyes and toes are yellow and its beak is dark and curved. Its legs and feet are covered with dark feathers.

This owl eats large insects, amphibians, lizards, small birds and small mammals. It is a highly nocturnal species and does most of its hunting at night. Its call is a repeated ‘wooooop’ or ‘ooo-uk’. A pair of these birds will form a lasting bond and take care of their young together. The female lays 3 to 5 white eggs in tree holes and is helped by the male to incubate them. These birds are non-migratory and disperse locally within the range after breeding.

This species is listed under the ‘Least Concern’ category in the IUCN Red List, since it is seen commonly within its range and its numbers are assumed to be stable. It faces threats from habitat destruction, human intrusion and trapping by pet traders.

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