We turned the lights off as soon as we heard the low melodic voice of an Oriental Scops Owl outside our room. We were about to turn in on the third floor of our secluded rest-house at Kulaura. From a scraggy grove next to our room the Owl continued to sing: 'uk kook kruk, uk kook kruk, uk kook kruk..'
We sat up in the dark room and cocked our ears to the soft, pleasing refrain of the rare owl. For nearly two decades, we were staying at that rest-house during the annual waterfowl survey of Hakaluki haor. It was only the second time we were fortunate to hear the unique song of an Oriental Scops Owl.
We wished the Owl to continue singing and not be troubled by light or sound from our room. We would be happy to listen to the Owl all night although we looked forward to starting our day pretty early. While it was essential for us to sleep, it was more important for the male Oriental Scops Owl to sing at night.
February-April is the breeding season of the Scops Owls. A female Owl makes her eggs only when the male serenades from an eventual breeding site. Unfortunately, there are not many jungles and wooded areas left in Bangladesh that could be used by the Oriental Scops Owls as their breeding sites.
Our secluded rest-house at Kulaura is an exceptionally good place for the owls. We commonly see two species of owlets, a fish owl and the Boobook here. But the Scops Owls are scarce; and the Oriental Scops Owl is scarcer. No wonder we were delighted to listen to it sing right next to our room.
There is no end of mystification, myth and belief related to the owls and their songs. Although most cultures simply branded the owl-songs as ill omens, a few adopted some creative variations. The people of Shwanee tribes of Oklahoma in the US count the number of hoots to assign various meanings to the song.
We could not help counting the number of times the Owl sang outside our room. A single call meant an omen of death to the Shwanee people. Lucky for us, the song of the Oriental Scops Owl had three parts; our count was always three or more. Fortuitously, three hoots meant a marriage in the families of Shwanee tribes.
The spirited Owl continued to sing 'uk kook kruk.. An interesting modern American transliteration of that song is: 'here comes the-bride.' We counted up to nine notes; then counted from one again to ninth note; and so on. As far as owl-notes are concerned, nine symbolises good fortune to the Shwanee tribes.
We actually wished the songs of nine notes to mean good fortune for the Oriental Scops Owls themselves. In Bangladesh they needed it, perhaps, much more than we did. Over the past decades the populations of owls were in steep decline while people, in general, enjoyed a period of relative prosperity.
The Oriental Scops Owl fed on insects and small vertebrates from the fallow land sprinkled with trees, neglected grassland and riverbanks covered with brushwood. Those places were getting progressively converted as we prospered. Besides, the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides has been depleting the owl's food-bank very fast.
After a while, the Owl outside our room stopped singing. The silence and darkness in the room turned imperious. We groaned and shuffled. Ted Hughes, the English poet-laureate of the past century, wrote a poem titled 'Owl's Song' to create an appearance of a forlorn owl. Three lines of the poem are:
How everything had nothing more to lose
Then sat still with fear
We sat still, looked through the windows into the dark night and hoped the energetic male would sing again after a pause. The Oriental Scops Owl, with its horn-like ear-feathers raised, looks stern and daunting. With large yellow eyes, it peers onto the starlit woodland to find its way, its food and its mate.
A female Oriental Scops Owl is usually a little heavier than a male, although they look alike. They, however, change their colour by alternating between greyish-brown and reddish-grey. Nevertheless, they merge without a glitch with the trunk of the trees they roost in the daytime in both their colour phases.
While awake in daytime, the Oriental Scops Owl habitually squints and does not open its eyes wide. It knows how the day-birds get agitated when they see the owl's large goggle eyes. During the day the owl prefers to sit perfectly still on a branch and sleep; and prays to stay unnoticed by all diurnal creatures.
Oriental Scops Owl is truly the dweller of the Orient; and has been doing pretty well at most places of the Orient. Unfortunately, we have been seeing this bird or hearing its call less and less in Bangladesh over the past two decades. The population of this beautiful little owl has clearly been declining in this country.
We may playfully count the notes of an Oriental Scops Owl in packs of nine; but not bring about its good fortune back easily. For that we need the involvement and the indulgence of a lot of people in conserving the habitats it needs for survival. Unlike the Barn Owl and the Spotted Owlet, the Scops Owls do not do well at places overtaken by people.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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