Forest owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti)

Also known as: forest little owl, forest spotted owlet
Synonyms: Athene blewitti
  
Spanish: Mochuelo de Blewitt, Mochuelo Forestal
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderStrigiformes
FamilyStrigidae
GenusHeteroglaux (1)
SizeLength: 23cm (2)

The forest owlet is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

Thought to be extinct for over 100 years until its rediscovery in 1997, the forest owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) is one of the rarest and least-known of India’s endemic bird species (2) (4).

The forest owlet is a stocky, square-headed owl with strikingly yellow eyes. It has dark grey-brown plumage, with only a faintly spotted crown and mantle. The owlets’ wings and tail are heavily banded and contrast starkly with its white underparts, making its overall appearance quite distinctive while in flight (4) (5). The forest owlet possesses disproportionately large talons which are put to use in catching prey up to two times its own size (6).

Although the male and female forest owlet are similar in appearance, there is a slight sexual dimorphism in this species, the female being the larger of the two (7). 

The forest owlet is endemic to the Narmada River Valley region in central India. Melghat tiger reserve is believed to be the stronghold of this species (8).

Although the forest owlet’s preferred habitat is the dry deciduous teak forests of the Narmada Valley, it has previously been known to inhabit the moist deciduous forests or dense jungles that lie at the periphery of this range (5) (8).

A strictly diurnal species, the forest owlet can often be easily spotted sunning itself on some of the barer branches in its habitat (5) (8). This species feeds on lizards, small rodents, amphibians, invertebrates and nestlings of other birds. It will often store prey items in hollow tree trunks (2).

Breeding occurs between October and March, and the female lays two eggs in a hole in a softwood tree. The incubation period is an estimated 30 days and, after hatching, the young are dependent on the female for at least a further 40 days (2).

The male forest owlet has been known to kill and consume its own offspring before they are fully fledged. It is not known why this behaviour is seen in this species (7), and it has been observed that the female forest owlet may be reluctant to allow any male to directly interact with the chicks (7).

Besides a wide range of vocalisations, the forest owlet indulges in sporadic tail-flicking or exaggerated head-bobbing, though it is not know what role this plays in communication (8) (9).

A fragmented population of between 100 and 250 forest owlets is believed to be left in the wild (2). Given the relative rarity of this bird, the severity of the various threats to the forest owlet are hard to discern. The deciduous forest on which the entire population relies has been severely exploited, and the reduction of this habitat is thought to be the predominant strain on the surviving population. The degradation of the habitat is the result of local illegal tree felling for firewood and timber, and also to provide space for farming and for new settlements (2).

The forest owlet faces a serious threat as a result of local superstitions. The eggs are collected by tribal people to bring luck in gambling and the animal itself is killed since owls are locally renowned to “feed on human souls”. Killing a young owl is widely considered to boost fertility (10).

Since its rediscovery, research has been carried out to better understand the forest owlet. At the site of its rediscovery, further forest losses have successfully been prevented and, due to the area’s strict protection, Melghat Tiger Reserve remains the sturdiest sanctuary, providing the perfect environment for roughly 100 individuals. A programme has been initiated that aims to increase the education and awareness of the locals about their environment (2).

The forest owlet is now protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, meaning that hunting or trapping of the forest owlet in India is prohibited. The forest owlet is also included on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), making international trade in this species illegal (3).

A range of forest management policies should be implemented in the forest owlet’s range, including restricting illegal woodcutting, controlling the use of pesticides, and protection measures for known nesting sites (2).

Find out more about the forest owlet and other bird species:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2012) 
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. BirdLife International - Forest owlet (February, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=2289
  3. CITES (February, 2012)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Rasmussen, C.P. and King, B.F. (1998) The rediscovery of the forest owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti. Forktail, 14: 53-55. Available at:
    http://www.orientalbirdclub.org/publications/forktail/14pdfs/King-Owlet.pdf
  5. Rasmussen, P.C. and Collar, N.J. (1998) Identification, distribution and status of the Forest Owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti. Forktail, 14: 43-51. Available at:
    http://www.orientalbirdclub.org/publications/forktail/14pdfs/Rasmussen-ForestOwlet.pdf
  6. Taylor, I., Newton, I., Kavanagh, R. and Olsen, J. (2002) Ecology and Conservation of Owls. Csiro Publishing, Australia.
  7. Ishtiaq, F. and Rahmani, A.R. (2000) Cronism in the forest owlet Athene (Heteroglaux) blewitti. Forktail16: 172-174. Available at:
    http://www.orientalbirdclub.org/publications/forktail/16pdfs/Ishtiaq-Cronism.pdf
  8. Ishtiaq, F. and Rahmani, A.R. (2000) Further information on the status and distribution of the forest owlet Athene blewitti in India. Forktail16: 125-130. Available at:
    http://www.orientalbirdclub.org/publications/forktail/16pdfs/Ishtiaq-Owlet.pdf
  9. Rasmussen, P.C. and Ishtiaq, F. (1999) Vocalizations and behaviour of forest spotted owlet Athene blewitti. Forktail16: 61-65. Available at:
    http://www.orientalbirdclub.org/publications/forktail/15pdfs/Rasmussen-ForestOwlet.pdf
  10. Mudur, G.S. (January, 2009) Black magic curses owls. The Owl Pages. Available at:
    http://www.owlpages.com/news.php?article=794