8 Oct 2012


 by Ramani Darshit
7th mech.
Even as efforts are on to declare it the state bird of Maharashtra, the critically endangered forest owlet’s habitat continues to either vanish or degrade due to encroachment and inappropriate forest management. Of the species that was thought to be extinct in 1884 only to be sighted again in 1997, 113 years later, by a group of American ornithologists, only 300 to 500 forest owlets remain. Now, experts feel its elevation to state bird status may do more harm than good.
The bird, also known as Blewitt’s Owl, was first spotted in December 1872 in the Bansa-Phuljar range in the eastern part of the then Central Provinces, now Chhattisgarh, by a British bird collector, F R Blewitt. The forest owlet is now critically endangered as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature list and Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of India. “We were not able to find even one pair in and around the woods in Chhattisgarh. Almost all those forests have been cut down and the land is now used for farming by tribals,” says Girish Jathar, a wildlife researcher working on forest owlets. He adds, “A habitat modelling study by our team has suggested that there has been a 20 per cent decrease in the prime habitat of the bird since 2004.”
In 1997, the bird was rediscovered by American ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen in Toranmal in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra. It is endemic to central India and is found in Melghat, Toranmal, Taloda and some sites in Khandwa and Burhanpur districts in Madhya Pradesh. It has been observed that the owlet is found in forests with a high density of teak trees. “As a tiger finds its place at the top of the food chain in the forests, the forest owlet, too, is at the top of the food chain and thus indicates a healthy forest. Declaring it a state bird of Maharashtra will attract a large number of amateur photographers and enthusiasts to the fortunately-not-so-well-known sites. One can see what has happened to tiger reserves,” says Dharmaraj Patil, who along with Jathar, was part of a detailed study of the bird in central India.
A method called ‘call replay’ is used to spot the bird. Jathar says, “There is a danger that if tourists use this method increasingly for sighting the bird, there may be adverse physiological and behavioural effects. Birds have been seen destroying their own nests and breaking their own eggs.” In their study, these researchers had recommended that cattle grazing be banned in and around the identified sites and had also asked the forest department not to take forest management measures like drawing fire lines in March, which is the peak breeding season of the bird.
In 2010, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) had recommended the bird for state bird status. The proposal will come up for discussion when the Wildlife Board of Maharashtra state meets next. BNHS director Asad Rahmani says, “The present state bird of Maharashtra, the yellow-footed green pigeon, is found not only found in Maharashtra and India but also in some of the neighbouring countries. The forest owlet, which is found almost only in Maharashtra, is a suitable state bird. The status will help as it did in the case of tigers.”
Madhav Gadgil, an environmentalist and natural historian, says that in case of many animals, special status has not visibly helped their conservation.


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