Critically Endangered Forest Owlet Under Threat from Habitat Loss
TerraGreen|January 2022
Forest owlets are an endemic species to India. They are found only in small pockets of forest patches in India, and nowhere else in the world. The species were thought to be extinct, until a group of scientists rediscovered the species, and then started working on them. The forest owlets are threatened by severe habitat loss and development projects, apart from changes in climate. Sharada Balasubramanian writes about the birds, their rediscovery and how their habitat is threatened by ancient climate change and landscape modification.
Sharada Balasubramanian
Forest owlets, a critically endangered bird, is found only in India, and nowhere else in the world. The bird was first spotted in the 1880s. After that, for almost 100 years, no one even discussed these birds.

The history of forest owlets dates back to 1872. It was the time when an Irish officer described forest owlets from Chhattisgarh in Eastern Madhya Pradesh. He thought the owl looked different. Until 1884, seven of these birds were collected from different Indian states. This was to create a distribution record of the forest owlets from a particular region or a time. After that, no one even heard about forest owlets.

In 1976, Ripley, a well-known ornithologist and author of prominent bird reference books, wrote a paper. In this paper, he listed the possibly extinct birds of India—those birds of which there were no records— and forest owlet was one among such birds. These birds looked similar to the commonly spotted owlet and were often mistaken for the same. But these species were different from the spotted owlet.

Two crucial research papers were published on forest owlets. One is understanding the bird’s diversity through genetic research, and the other one is how the ancient climatic change impacted the distribution of these birds. This was for the first time that genetic research was done on the forest owlets.

Rediscovery of the Species

The forest owlets were thought to be extinct. However, after 113 years of silence on forest owlets, in 1997, Pamela Rasmussen, a taxidermist from the Smithsonian Institute was compiling the book, Birds of South Asia. While she was looking at the forest owlet specimen, she started comparing it with the illustration of the bird in Salim Ali’s book. Then, she realized, this was different, because it had a white belly, and looked strong and big. Rasmussen and her team left for India in 1997 and started searching for the bird. While searching, they found a different-looking bird in an open forest in Maharashtra. They realized it was the forest owlet.

Soon after Rasmussen’s rediscovery, the Bombay Natural History Society started their survey. After that, more people worked on the species. The well-known ornithologist Salim Ali also looked for the forest owlet at Melghat in Maharashtra. However, he could not detect the species. Researchers say that this is perhaps because he did not have the calls of the bird. Prachi Mehta, senior scientist and executive director of Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, has been working on the ecology of forest owlets. From 2005, Prachi and her team started their survey. To begin with, they neither had the bird skin or the call. Also, there was very little historical information about forest owlets.

Shomita Mukherjee, a scientist from Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History who worked on the forest owlet research believes people could have just stopped spotting these species. She says, “The birds did not disappear. People were not locating it. Also, the bird looks similar to spotted owlet. So it could have been missed.”

Prachi concurs, “The calls of forest owlet and spotted owlet was different. They also looked different. But only a trained eye could spot this difference.” Shomita wanted to look at the distribution of the species, like, where they occurred. She says, “Though the birds were not found in places where they were originally found, like Chhattisgarh, it does not mean that the birds are not there anymore. Just that they were perhaps, not detected during the surveys.”

From 2005–2008, Prachi and her team surveyed across five Indian states, looking for forest owlets. She published the paper in Birding Asia. Prachi says, “Salim Ali looked for forest owlet in Melghat but could not detect the species. He did not have the calls of the bird.

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