THE BARN OWL
THE barn owl is a cosmopolitan bird. It is an adaptive species, and so has been able to make itself at home all the world over. Like every widely distributed species, including man, it has its local peculiarities. The barn owls of India are somewhat different from those of Africa, and these latter, again, may be readily distinguished from those that dwell in Europe. This any one may see for himself by paying a visit to the Zoological Gardens at Regent's Park, where barn owls from all parts of the world blink out their lives in neighbouring cages. Needless to say, species-mongers have tried to magnify these local peculiarities into specific differences. The European bird is known as Strix flammea. An attempt was made to differentiate the Indian barn owl. If you look up the bird in Jerdon's classical work you will see that it is called Strix javanica. Jerdon's justification for making a new species of it was its larger size, more robust feet and toes, and the presence of spots on the lower plumage. If such were specific differences we ought to divide up man, Homo sapiens, into quite a large number of species: Homo major, H. minor, H. longirostris, H. brevirostris, etc.
However, neither with the barn owl nor with man has the species-maker had his own way. Ornithologists recognise but one barn owl. This bird, which is frequently called the screech owl, is delightfully easy to describe. Everybody knows an owl when he sees one ; but stay, I forgot the German Professor, mentioned by Mr. Bosworth Smith, who held up in triumph the owl which he had shot, saying: "Zee, I have shot von schnipe mit einem face Push cat." Let me therefore say it is easy enough for the average man to recognise an owl, but it is quite another matter when it comes to "spotting" the species to which an individual happens to belong. As a rule the family likeness is so strong as to overshadow specific differences. The barn owl, however, differs from all others in that it has a long, thin face. Take any common or garden owl, and you will observe that it has a round, plum-pudding-like head. Place that owl before one of those mirrors which make everything look long and thin, and you will see in the glass a very fair representation of the barn owl. The face of this owl, when it is awake, is heart-shaped; when the bird is asleep it is as long as that of a junior Madras Civil Servant as he looks over the Civil List. Whether awake or asleep, the bird has an uncanny, half-human look. It is innocent of the "ears" or " horns" which form so conspicuous a feature of some owls. In passing, I may say that those horn-like, tufts of feathers have no connection with the well-developed auditory organ of the owl.
The barn owl's face is white, as is its lower plumage, hence it is popularly known in England as the white owl. The back and upper plumage are pale grey. The tail is buff, and there is a good deal of buff scattered about the rest of the plumage; it is on this account that the bird is called flammea.
The barn owl is, I believe, common in all parts of India, but it is not often seen owing to its strictly nocturnal habits. It ventures not forth into the dazzling light of day as does that noisy little clown, the spotted owlet (Athene brama). Should it happen to be abroad in daylight the crows make its life a burden. Friend Corvus is a very conservative individual. He sets his face steadfastly against any addition to the local fauna. As he seldom or never sees the barn owl, he does not include it among the birds of his locality ; so that when one does show its face, the crows proceed to mob it. Their efforts are well seconded by the small fry among birds, who seem instinctively to dislike the whole owl tribe.
During the day the barn owl sleeps placidly in the interior of a decayed tree, or in a tomb, mosque, temple, or ruin, or even in the secluded verandah of a bungalow. The last place of abode is unsatisfactory from the point of view of the owl, for Indian servants display an antipathy towards it quite as great as that shown by the crows. They believe that the owls bring bad luck, and are in this respect not one whit more foolish than ignorant folk in other parts of the world. This useful and amusing bird is everywhere regarded with superstitious dread by the uneducated.
It lives almost exclusively on rats, mice, shrews, and other enemies of the farmer. And as an exceptional case it will take a young bird, which is usually a sparrow. - Most people will agree that we can spare a few sparrows ; nevertheless, that cruel idiot, the gamekeeper, classes the barn owl as vermin and shoots it whenever he has the chance. This is fairly often, owing to the confiding habits of the creature. It will enter a bungalow after rats or moths, and will sometimes terrify the timid sleeper by sitting on the end of his bed and screaming at him !
The owl is blessed with an appetite that would do credit to an alderman. Lord Lilford states that he saw "a young half-grown barn owl take down nine full-grown mice, one after another, until the tail of the ninth stuck out of his mouth, and in three hours' time was crying for more." Let me anticipate the captious critic by saying that it was the owl and not the tail of the ninth mouse that, like Oliver Twist, called for more. Moreover, the tail did not, as might be supposed, stick out because the bird was " full up inside." The barn owl invariably swallows a mouse head first; it makes a mighty gulp, with the result that the whole of the mouse, except the tail, disappears. Thus the victim remains for a short time in order that the owl may enjoy the bonne bouche. Then the tail disappears suddenly, and the curtain is rung down on the first act of the tragedy. The second and third acts are like unto the first. The last act is not very polite, but it must be described in the interests of science. After an interval of a few hours the owl throws up, in the form of a pellet, the bones, fur, and other undigestible portions of his victims. This is, of course, very bad manners, but it is the inevitable result of bolting a victim whole. One vice, alas! leads to another.
Kingfishers, which swallow whole fish, likewise eject the bones. This habit of the owl has enabled zoologists to disprove the contention of the gamekeeper that the barn owl lives chiefly upon young pheasants. The bones found in these pellets are nearly all those of small rodents.
The screech owl, as its name implies, is not a great songster. It hisses, snores, and utters, during flight, blood-curdling screams, which doubtless account for its evil reputation. It lays roundish white eggs in a hole in a tree or other convenient cavity. Three, four, or six are laid, according to taste. I have never found the eggs in India, but they are, in England at any rate, laid, not in rapid succession, but at considerable intervals, so that one may find, side by side in a nest, eggs and young birds of various ages. I do not know whether the owl derives any benefit from this curious habit. It has been suggested that the wily creature makes the first nestling which hatches out do some of the incubating. Pranks of this kind are all very well when the nest is hidden away in a hole; they would not do in an open nest to which crows and other birds of that feather have access.
The kite is a very close sitter. Like the crow, she knoweth the wickedness of her own heart, and as she judges others by herself, deems it necessary to continually mount guard over her eggs. Patience eventually meets with its reward. Three weeks of steady sitting result in the appearance of the young kites.
This long and patient sitting on the part of parent birds is, when one comes to think of it, a most remarkable phenomenon. No sooner do the eggs appear in the nest than the most active little bird seems to lose all its activity and become quite sedentary in its habits. Take, for example, the sprightly white-browed fantail flycatcher (Rhipidura albifrontata), a bird which ordinarily seems to have St. Vitus's dance in every organ and appendage. This species will, when it has eggs, sit as closely or more closely than a barndoor hen, and will sometimes allow you to stroke it. I often wonder what are the feelings of such a bird when incubating. One is tempted to think that it must find the process intensely boring. But this cannot be so, or it would refuse to sit. The fowls of the air are not hampered by the Ten Commandments; they are free to do that to which the spirit moveth them, without let or hindrance, without fear of arrest or prosecution for breach of the law. Hence birds must positively enjoy sitting on their eggs. At the brooding season avine nature undergoes a complete change. Ordinarily a bird delights to expend its ebullient energy in vigorous motion, just as a strong man delights to run a race; but at the nesting season its inclinations change; then its greatest joy is to sit upon its nest. Even as human beings are suddenly seized with the Bridge craze and are then perfectly content to sit for hours at the card table, so at certain seasons are birds overcome by the incubating mania. If my view of the matter be correct, and I think it must be, a sitting bird is no more an object for our pity than is a Bridge maniac. But this is a digression.
Let us hie back to our kite and her family of young ones in their lofty nursery. For a time all went well with them. But one day the sun of prosperity which had hitherto shone upon them became darkened by great black clouds of adversity. I happened to pass the nest at this time and saw about twenty excited crows squatting on branches near the nest and cawing angrily. The mother kite was flying round and round in circles, and was evidently sorely troubled in spirit. She had done something to offend the crows. Ere long she returned to her nest, whereupon the crows took to their wings, cawing more vociferously than ever. As soon as the kite had settled on the nest they again alighted on branches of the tree, and, each from a respectful distance, gave what the natives of Upper India call gali galoj. She tolerated for a time their vulgar abuse, then left the nest. This was the signal for all the crows to take to their wings. Some of them tried to attack her in the air. For a few minutes I watched them chasing her. After a little the attack began to flag, I, therefore, came to the conclusion that the corvi were recovering their mental equilibrium, and that the whole affair would quickly fizzle out, as such incidents usually do. Accordingly, I went on my way. Returning an hour later, I was surprised to find the crows still engaged in the attack. Moreover, the kite was not visible and the crows had grown bolder, for whereas previously they had abused the kite from a safe distance, some of them were now quite close to the nest. Being pressed for time, I was not able to stay and await developments. In the afternoon when I again passed the nest I saw no kite, but the tree was alive with crows, and part of the nest appeared to have been pulled down. The nestlings had probably been destroyed. Of this I was not able to make certain, for I was on my way to fulfil a social engagement. I was, I admit, sorely tempted to "cut" this, and nothing but the want of a good excuse prevented my doing so. " Dear Mrs. Burra Mem, I much regret that I was prevented from coming to your tennis party this afternoon by a domestic bereavement -: of a kite," seemed rather unconvincing, so I went to the lawn-tennis party.
When I saw the nest the following morning it was a total wreck. There were still one or two crows hanging around, and while I was inspecting the ground beneath the scene of the tragedy they amused themselves by dropping sticks on my head. The crow is an ill-conditioned bird. I found, lying about on the ground, the debris of the nest, a number of kite's feathers, including six or seven of the large tail ones, and two crow's wings. These last furnished the clue to the behaviour of the crows. The kite must have attacked and killed a sickly crow, in order to provide breakfast for her young. This was, of course, an outrage on corvine society -: an outrage which demanded speedy vengeance. Hence the gathering of the clans which I had witnessed the previous day. At first the crows were half afraid of the kite, and were content to call her names; but as they warmed up to their work they gained courage, and so eventually killed the kite, destroyed her nest, and devoured her young. Thus did they avenge the murder.