THE SPOTTED OWLET
PLINY describes the owl as the "very monster of the night." The Indian spotted owlet (Athene brama) goes one better than Pliny's bird, for, in addition to being the very monster of the night, it is the terror of the early and the closing hours of the day. This amusing little creature is the characteristic night bird of India. Just as the Indian day would be unthinkable without the crows, so would the night not seem itself were there no spotted owlets to disturb our slumbers.
When I first came to the "gorgeous East" I was sent, presumably by way of introduction to the rigours of the climate of this delightful country, to a station on the borders of the Punjab desert. Life in a desert is not without its advantages. For example, mosquitoes are conspicuous by their absence. There are some climates at which even the anopheles draws the line. During the winter months I had not much to complain of, save that the surrounding country was brown instead of green. The place was merely Aden without the sea and the rocks. By the middle of March the bungalow was an oven, hence beds were placed outside. In our compound was a great banyan tree, which was the concert hall of some spotted owlets.
I noticed that Colonel Cunningham states that the spotted owlet is noisy only at nightfall and dawn. " During the course of the night," he writes, " they are usually very silent." This statement is doubtless true of the Calcutta owlets, which are possibly somewhat subdued and overawed by the vice-regal presence. The spotted owlet of the United Provinces is not thus kept in order, it behaves most riotously the whole night. I do not go so far as to assert that the histrionic performances of every bird continue unceasingly throughout the night; all I say is that the incantations never cease. If it is not one bird that originates them, then it is another.
The goings-on of this owlet in Northern India are thus described by Mr. W. Jesse: " It keeps up a succession of street fights • and its squabblings and screechings are worse than a whole parish of cats collected in one back area." The owls in our banyan tree became such a nuisance that a court was held, and the birds were condemned to death. One holiday was devoted to an archery meeting. The result of this was that the whole family of jungle owlets suddenly departed unto their fathers. We, like the murderer of poor cock robin, had killed them with our bow and arrow. After that, our nights were comparatively peaceful. Our sleep was then disturbed only by such trifles as distant owlets, pariah dogs, jackals, brain-fever birds, and dust storms.
I was next sent to the hills, where the spotted owlets ceased from troubling. Athene brama is scattered all over India, and, indeed, over most parts of Southern Asia, but it does not ascend the hills to any great height. If you would evade these birds without going to the uttermost parts of the earth, you must either flee to the hills or betake yourself to Ceylon.
Eighteen months of Himalayan breezes, direct from the snows, sufficiently restored my shattered constitution to enable me again to face the spotted owlets. This time I was sent to the " Garden of India." The owlets were, if possible, more numerous and more vociferous than they had been in the desert. I thoughtlessly rented a bungalow, of which the roof was composed of a double layer of tiles. This is a most excellent arrangement for warding off the heat of the sun, but it has the drawback of forming a nesting-place after the heart of the spotted owlet.
I do not know how many birds used to spend the day among the tiles; there may have been twenty of them, or there may have been two hundred. The worst of spotted owlets is, that they will all insist on speaking simultaneously. There will perhaps be five of them sitting in a row. Number one begins to chatter, then all the rest join in and try to shout the first man down, just as the " seven sisters" do. The result is the most dreadful uproar, and any one who did not know the birds would think that there was murder in progress.
As a matter of fact, this is how the owlets enjoy themselves. Englishmen take their pleasures sadly; spotted owlets take them noisily. It is as impossible as it is unnecessary to describe the cries of the spotted owlets. It must suffice that it is a superb blend of caterwauling and screeching in B flat. Our owlet friends in the roof used to remain comparatively quiet from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. This was presumably their sleeping-time. From the latter hour spasmodic outbursts of screeching would be heard. About five o'clock the birds used to emerge.
The spotted owlet is the most diurnal of the strigidae. He does not object to daylight in the least. Only yesterday morning, at about half-past seven, I saw one of these birds sitting on the stump of a defunct tree. Cunningham states that he saw a pair of them flying about, and quarrelling fiercely, over a glaring high road near Delhi, in the full blaze of the early afternoon of an April day, and when the hot wind was raging like the blast from an oven.
Owls are built for night work. They have very large eyes, long ears, and their plumage is so constituted that they can fly absolutely noiselessly. They are birds of prey, and have to hunt in the silence of night, when the hum of insects is still, and the noises of the day are hushed ; hence the necessity of silent flight. Most owls lie low during the day; not so much because the sun hurts their eyes as on account of the rough handling they receive at the hands of the rest of the feathered folk. Birds are like boys at school, they set upon every strange individual which shows itself. Some owls sleep in trees; such find it very difficult to elude their pursuers if they once expose themselves. They have no haven of refuge to which they can flee. Not so with the spotted owlet. It has a lair in the shape of a hole to which it can retire when mobbed. Consequently, it is very bold, habitually venturing forth in daylight. Thus the other birds grow accustomed to it, and do not so often molest it.
During the day the spotted owlet is, of course, civil enough to the other birds of its acquaintance. At night, however, its manner changes. No sooner has the sun sunk below the horizon than it assumes a cock-of-the-walk air, and then makes no bones about punching the head of a king-crow, or any other bird which ought to be abed.
The spotted owl is a ludicrous little creature. One cannot look at it without laughing. The moment the bird notices that you are watching it, it crouches in the most ridiculous manner, glares at you, and then treats you to abuse of which the quality is such that it would do credit to any coster. When you begin to laugh, the bird flies away in a huff.
Athene drama lives chiefly on insects, but it will attack shrews, mice, lizards, and small birds. Sometimes an unusually bold owlet ventures inside the bungalow in order to hawk the moths attracted by the light.
The bird breeds in February or March, and lays its eggs in the hole of a tree or building. The eggs are white, as are those of almost every bird which nests in a dark place. Birds cannot count above two, so that if eggs which are laid in semi-darkness were not white, some of them might become separated from the main body without being noticed by the bird, and so fail to be hatched.
In India, as in England, owls are accounted birds of evil omen. According to my friend B. Kaccoo Mal Manucha, Rai Bahadur (whose book, " The Hindu Home Life," should be read by all), " If you love a person who does not return your love, offer a dish of meat prepared with an owl's flesh, and as soon as it is tasted, he or she will be head over ears in love with you."
Listen to this, ye languishing maidens and love-sick swains, listen! How is it that ye are so sad when spotted owlets innumerable are living in your neighbourhood ?
But, stay, let me not raise false hopes! Not only has the owl, like the proverbial hare, to be caught before he is cooked, but when the bird is cooked, it is necessary to induce the object of your affections to eat him. This may prove a difficult task in this age of sordid epicureanism; nevertheless, one can but try: it should, after all, be possible to cunningly disguise the flesh in a well-thought-out savoury.
Owl's flesh has yet another useful property, as any native will tell you. If a wife finds her husband intractable, if he persists in staying late at the club, losing money at bridge, and so is not at home at the dinner-hour, all the wife has to do is to give him boiled owl's flesh to eat, and he will, if he eats it, henceforth be as butter in his wife's hands.
But no rose is without its thorn. In spite of all the virtues inherent in the bird's flesh, you must " never allow an owl to rest on any portion of your building, as that means ruin to the inmates."
This must be true, because Kaccoo Mai says so ; yet dozens of owls have sat and squabbled on my double-tiled roof, and I have hitherto managed to avoid the bankruptcy court. I say this in no boasting spirit, but simply by way of encouragement to those who may one day chance to see, sitting on their roof, a spotted owlet.