72. ketupa ceylonensis

No. 72. Ketupa Ceylonensis. GMEL.


This species breeds from December to March, but the majority-lay I think in February. They always nest in the vicinity of water, sometimes choosing a cleft in rocks overhanging a mountain stream, sometimes a broad shelf in the clay cliffs of some river, sometimes a huge cavity in some old Banyan tree, and at times appropriating an old nest of Haliaetus Leucoryphus.

Where they make their own nest, on a ledge or recess of a cliff, it consists of little but a few sticks, mingled with a few feathers, or when in holes of trees, of a few feathers and dead leaves, but when they annex an old nest of the fishing Eagles, (and I have several records of this) they seem to line it more carefully with finer twigs, grass and feathers. I have never found green leaves under the eggs of this species.

Normally they lay two eggs; I have altogether records of nine nests, and in none of these were there more than two eggs or young ones.

The eggs are very perfect, broad ovals, white with, in most specimens, the faintest possible creamy tinge. The shell close-grained and compact, freely pitted all over its surface, but nevertheless more or less glossy. They seem to me undistinguishable from many of those of Ascalaphia Coromanda. In size they vary from 2.29 to 2.44 in Length, and from 1.84 to 1.94 in breadth, but the average of nine eggs measured was 2.3 by 1.88.

Mr. G. Marshall writes: " This bird is pretty common in the Saharunpoor district, it lays two, round, white eggs, and returns year after year to the same nest. I found one nest in a hollow in the fork of a Banyan tree about twenty-five feet from the ground, the hollow being so deep, that the parent bird, sitting, could not be seen from the ground on any side. I found it accidentally, as I was climbing the tree for another nest. I watched it for three years ; in 1866, on the 10th April, I found it with two young ones; in 1867, I visited it on the 17th March, and again found young ones; in 1868, on the 24th February, I found two eggs, the first of which was hatched on 14th March, the other egg I took. The tree in which the nest was, was a very large one, in a small grove of Jamun trees, on the bank of an extensive jheel near Sirsawar."

Mr. Brookes mentions that he " shot a female on the 25th of February, sitting on two addled eggs. What little nest there was, consisted of sticks, and was placed on a shelf of the clay cliffs of the Jumna, in the Etawah district. The shelf was slightly overhung, and on it, within twenty yards of the Fish Owl, a Neophron had her nest." Towards the end of July, I found a pair of these Owls with two fully grown young ones, in a tiny cave in the rocky and precipitous banks of the Kosila, near Kakuree Ghat. The cave, the mouth of which was veiled by a large down-trailing Andromeda bush, had obviously been their nesting place, and though well concealed, was easy of access. There were a few sticks covered over with castings and remains of numerous birds and bones of small mammals. I turned the whole family out of their quarters, but did not otherwise molest them, an act of forbearance which I later had cause to regret, as they ceased not, the livelong night through, to give forth the most vociferous protests (from the cliff face, immediately above my tent) against, as I suppose, my neglect to honour them with a place in my museum.

On January 11th, 1867, I visited a large nest in a Peepul tree overhanging the Jumna below Sheregurh, in which, both in 1865 and 1866, to my personal knowledge, a pair of H. Leucoryphus had reared their young. To my surprise, it was tenanted by a pair of Ketupa Ceylonensis, which had carefully relined the nest, and had at that time a solitary young one in it, some seven days old, a ball of whitish down. On the nest we found two Quails, a Pigeon, Doves and a Mynah, all with the heads, necks and breasts eaten away, but with the wings, back, feet and tail remaining almost intact. Two or three of them were quite dry, and one which I still have, is quite as good a specimen, as most of those that I owe to an eminent naturalist, who appears to preserve his birds by first pulling out half the feathers and then having what remains, carefully run over, on very dirty ground, by a heavy cart wheel!

On the banks of the Sutledge and again near Bhurtpoor I found nests which I had been led to as those of H. Leucoryphus, occupied by K. Ceylonensis.

I have never yet had certain evidence of their feeding on fish. I have invariably found the remains of birds or small animals, about their breeding places.

This species is nowhere I believe numerically very common, and in the plains of Upper India it is rare as compared with A. Bengalensis, or Coromanda. I have generally found it in rocky, broken or raviny ground, and it most affects, according to my experience, the craggy banks of streams and rivers, where it roosts, during the day, near the base of some dense bush growing out of the face of the cliff.

It occurs pretty well throughout India, from Ceylon to Afghanistan on the one hand, and Darjeeling on the other, extending into Assam and British Burmah, where Mason mentions that it " often lifts up its boding notes of tee-douk, uttered with sepulchral tones at midnight, and like a ventriloquist, seems to throw its voice to any point of the compass at pleasure.,,

There are, however, wide tracts in the continent of India, in central Rajpootana for instance, where it appears never to be met with, dry almost treeless, sandy plains, or bare rocky ridges, that do not suit the fancy of this water loving Owl.

Westwards it probably will be found in Persia and Mesopotamia; in Palestine it has been obtained; but on this head I shall content myself with reproducing the remarks of Mr. Tristram, its discoverer there, " We can only point to one locality as the certain residence of this bird in Palestine. It is perhaps the most interesting addition, as well as the most unexpected, which we made to the fauna of the country, and was found by us in the wild wooded glen of Wady el Kurn, running up from the Plain of Acre. We discovered it accidentally, and at first took it for the Bubo Ascalaphus, when it bolted out of the dense foliage of a great Carob tree, under which we were standing; we thus put up no less than four individuals in two days. When disturbed, the bird was more than ordinarily perplexed, even for an Owl; but owing to the difficulty of crossing the gully and the dense jungle, we were only able to secure a single specimen which had been put up from a Carob tree by Mr. Bartlett, and was marked by me, on to a ledge of rocks on the opposite side of the Wady. The Wady possesses a perennial stream, well-shaded by ever-green timber, and swarming with fish and crabs, the favorite and probably exclusive food of the Ketupa" This appeared in 1866. Writing on the same subject in 1868 - : Mr. Tristram says, " The most interesting of the Indian non-Ethiopian species, is Ketupa Ceylonensis ; and the occurrence of this great fish-eating Owl is the more exceptional, as there are no strigidae in Africa bearing the least affinity to this well marked genus, and since it has not yet been found in the Jordan valley, but only sedentary by the streams of the coast."

Eastwards, Mr. Swinhoe informs us that, this species is a constant tenant of the dark rocky ravines of Hong Kong. He sent a specimen home, which was identified by Dr. Sclater as K. Ceylonensis, so that no doubt can remain as to this point. Southwards in Malayana, it seems to be replaced by the two following species K. Flavipes and Javanensis.

Ketupa Ceylonensis.

Dimension Male
From Male
To Female
From Female
Length 21.00 22.00 22.00 23.50
Expanse. 54.00 56.00 56.00 59.00
Wing. 15.00 15.70 16.50 18.00
Tail from vent 7.60 8.00 7.80 8.50
Tarsus 2.80 3.10 2.80 3.25
Foot, greatest length. 4.60 4.80 4.75 4.90
Foot, greatest, breadth 4.90 5.10 4.9 5.2
Mid Toe to root of Claw. 1.75 1.85 1.75 1.98
Its Claw straight. 1.03 1.13 0.98 1.13
Hind toe to root of claw. 1.00 1.10 1.00 1.10
Its claw, straight 0.90 1.00 1.00 1.06
Inner toe to root of claw. 1.40 1.55 1.45 1.60
Its claw, straight 1.10 1.22 1.10 1.35
Bill, straight, from edge of cere. 1.10 1.25 1.15 1.42
Bill from gape. 2.00 2.10 1.95 2.20
Bill width at gape. 1.65 1.80 1.65 1.80
Bill, height, at front, at edge of cere. 0.60 0.70 0.65 0.72
Distance by which closed wings fall short of end of Tail. Nil. Nil. Nil. Nil.
Distance by which lower Tail Coverts fall short of end of Tail. 2.00 3.00 2.00 3.00
Weight Lboz 2.4 Lboz 3.2 3.0 4.4
Length of cere on culmen. 0.65 0.81 0.68 0.80

(Three males and three females measured and weighed.) The fifth primary the longest (fourth and sometimes third and fourth sub-equal. The first is 2.5 to 4.75 shorter, the second 0.70 to 1.40, and the third nil to 0.50, shorter. Exterior tail feathers 0.45 to 1.3 shorter than central ones.

DESCRIPTION. Legs and feet, (tarsus feathered in front, for from 0.5 to 1.00, but the leg bare behind for from 0.25 to 0.6 above the joint), a dingy greenish grey, light greenish, or sometimes plumbeous. Three large scutae at the end of each toe, the rest of the upper surface of the toes, and tarsus, with small prominent reticulated scales. Papillae of the soles of the feet harsh and much developed, reminding one of the soles of an Osprey. Inner toe and claw, nearly as long and stouter than the mid toe. Claws bluish grey at the base, horny black beyond ; mid claw with two sharp edges developed, one on the inner side, and one beneath ; other claws round or elliptical in section with a sharp knife-like ridge developed below. Irides bright yellow. Iris very narrow, but of large diameter. Orbits, with a dense double row of bristly, black shafted, white feathers, with the bare shafts considerably elongated. The rest of the eyelids bare; the upper greenish, the lower greyish brown.

Cere greenish grey. Bill dingy greenish; point of the upper mandible blackish horny ; of the lower mandible yellowish.

Plumage. Lores with a huge patch of bristle-like white feathers with greatly elongated black bare shafts overhanging the commissure and meeting over the base of the cere ; some of them almost if not quite as long as the bill itself. The whole of the forehead, top and back of the head are a somewhat pale pinkish brown, each feather centred darker. The feathers above the ear coverts on each side, behind the eye, lengthened so as to form aigretttes or ear tufts from an inch and a half to two inches in length. The feathers of the back of the neck often a somewhat darker shade, more broadly shafted with a still darker brown, and most of the feathers with a trace of wavy mottling or obscure bars especially towards the tips on the lighter brown portion. Upper back and scapulars much the same hue, and dark centred m the same manner, as the feathers of the back of the neck, but most of the exterior feathers of the scapulars where they overhang the lesser wing coverts with nearly the whole outer webs white, and the lighter brown of the scapulars and in a less degree of the feathers of the upper back very much mottled and variegated with tiny wavy lines and small irregular blotches of fulvous white. Lower back, rump, and upper tail coverts much the same hue as the upper back, but with only a central line of dark brown and very feebly mottled with fulvous white. All the lesser wing coverts, the same brown as the upper back, with similar broad dark brown centres, with a few spots of fulvous white on some of the longest. The median coverts mostly dark brown towards the shafts and on the inner webs, with one or two well marked spots of white or fulvous white on the latter, and the outer webs mostly white or fulvous white, freckled or mottled with paler brown. The winglet and primary coverts chiefly dark brown with two or more imperfect transverse bars of fulvous white or paler brown. The greater coverts of the secondaries much the same as the preceding, but the outer webs much tinged with pale fulvous brown, and there is more white and more mottling about them than the preceding. The primaries are dark brown tipped with fulvous white and with four or five 1/4 to 3/4 inch transverse bars, of white, fulvous or rufescent white, on the outer, and pale brown across the inner webs. The secondaries have much the same character as the primaries, but the bars are closer and larger in proportion and are more conspicuously mottled, and as a whole generally appear to have more white upon them than the primaries. The tertiaries and their coverts like the greater coverts of the secondaries are a paler and more fulvous brown, much marked with imperfect bars or blotches of fulvous white mottled with brown. The tail feathers are dark, somewhat umber, brown tipped with rufous or fulvous white, and with three or four comparatively narrow transverse bars of the same hue, most of the bars showing marks of faint mottling with a darker colour. Under the eyes and ear coverts, is a conspicuous patch of elongated, bristle-like rufous brown feathers with dark shafts; on the point of the chin is a patch of white bristle-like feathers, with elongated bare black pointed shafts, which curl up round, and are nearly as long as the lower mandible. The feathers of the rest of the chin and a patch on the throat immediately below it, pure white, with, towards the tips, a dark brown central streak, and three or four narrow wavy bars of reddish brown; the feathers on each side of this patch, on the sides and front of the neck, breast, abdomen and flanks, a somewhat rufous or pinkish brown, each feather with a narrow well defined central streak of very dark brown and closely barred throughout its whole length on both webs with narrow transverse wavy bars of a somewhat darker brown than the ground colour, though much lighter than the central streak. Thigh coverts and evnt feathers uniform fulvous or brownish white. Lower tail coverts very pale brown or fulvous white, streaked and barred like the body feathers. I note that the bars are closer and more numerous on the breast, where the general tint is also more vivacious, and the reverse of this, on the flanks and lower tail coverts. The wing lining somewhat, similar to the body feathers, but much less narrowly banded and altogether lighter; the greater lower coverts, however, of the primaries are pure white, broadly tipped with blackish brown. Lower surface of the quills glossy brown, darkest on the primaries, tipped with greyish white and with three or four transverse bars, of greyish white, growing yellower as they approach the bases, where the inner webs are mostly yellowish white.

My Scrap Book
Hume, Allan Octavian, ed. My Scrap Book: Or, Rough Notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology. Vol. 1. 1869.
Title in Book: 
72. ketupa ceylonensis
Book Author: 
Allan Octavian Hume
Page No: 
Common name: 
Brown Fish Owl
Brown Fish Owl
Ketupa zeylonensis
Vol. 1
Term name: 

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