I heard a sudden outburst of outraged screeches, squawks and squeals one evening and quickly opened my door to see what it was all about. My neighbour was standing outside a house and beckoning to me urgently. I quickly walked to where she was and looked in the direction she pointed.
There, next to the wheels of a Maruti 800, was a beautiful barn owl looking mildly disgruntled. My neighbour told me it was being chased by the rowdy crows in our colony and had flown in to the garage. I gawked at it. So this was the creature that screeched through the night! I had never seen one before. It looked outlandish with its flat heart-shaped face and downward-pointing nose. It didn’t seem to mind us looking at it and after a while, closed its eyes.
“It can’t see in the day time. It’s blind when there is too much light,” my neighbour was telling me sagely, about the owl.
This is far from the truth. Owls have excellent eyesight, especially in dim light and use their sight and keen hearing to hunt at night. I told my neighbour this but she did not seem very convinced.
A small knot of people had formed outside the gate and were looking at the owl with wonder. Another old aunty and a little girl immediately and with authority, pronounced the owl afflicted with the strange day time blindness. They were convinced that the owl was biding its time till dusk fell so that it could safely fly away. I can’t say why they all came to this conclusion, but it probably had something to do with owls being active mostly at night and sleeping during the day. During this whole proceeding, the owl was serenely standing in the same spot it landed, its eyes shut.
The neighbour whose garage the barn owl had appropriated was not too keen about this new guest. She asked if I could make it go away. Reluctantly, but with a twinge of excitement as I had not performed a rescue operation before, I went home to find a big sheet. I remember reading that when rescuing birds, it’s best to throw a sheet or large towel over them before picking them up. Since this will prevent them from seeing what is happening, it will reduce its shock.
I thought about the barn owl that Gerald Durrell brought to his house on his arm and for a happy minute I imagined doing the same.
Slowly and stealthily, I opened the gate and inched forward, holding my breath. The owl still had its eyes closed. As I got closer, I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful black and brown speckles on its wings which were a wonderful blend of ochre and brown. I paused, mesmerised. I was within arm’s reach of it.
The barn owl opened one eye and studied me.
I blinked at it. A few seconds passed.
I put one tentative foot forward and spread the sheet wide. Something told me my movements were too deliberate. Before I knew it, the owl spread its large wings open and took flight, out of the garage, past the Champaka trees, out of sight. I heard a few caws of the opportunistic crows, but the owl had flown away to safety. Dusk had fallen by this time. When I told the aunty who showed me the owl about it, she nodded and said, “That’s what I said. It would fly away when it became dark”. Maybe I should have waited.
Barn owls are increasing in number in the cities because their prey, the rodents are burgeoning in number here. Apart from being a rather noisy nocturnal neighbour to have, they do no harm and are beneficial to the cities as they keep the rodent population in check.
Owls probably evolved to be nocturnal so as to not compete with other raptors like kestrels and kites which also feed on rodents. This is common among species that depend on the same resources- be it food or territory. One species will change to occupy a different area- like how some lizard species occupy different strata of a tree- or evolve to feed at different times or seasons. An amazing example of this is how different bumblebee species have evolved proboscis (a mouthpart used for feeding) of different lengths to suck nectar from flowers of different lengths so as to not compete with each other for nectar.
On some nights, a familiar screech interrupts my thoughts. On some other nights, it is one of the last sounds I hear before I fall asleep. I smile to myself and remember the barn owl watching me with one calculating eye, the patterns on its wings still vivid in my mind.
(An edited version of this post was published on The Alternative)