Wildlife of Richard’s Town 7

Spotted Owlet — Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

I am fortunate to live in Richards Town, a locality in Bangalore that has a good density of trees and relatively open spaces. The residents share this area with members of the animal kingdom on whose lives they have a direct impact. It is up to the residents to decide if this impact is to be positive or negative. The first step, of course, is to be aware of our wild residents. In this series, I present to you the wild residents of Richards Town.

They are no harbingers of bad luck

The Spotted Owlet (Athene brama) is one of the many species of owls that have adapted to the urban environment and can be seen quite often in Bangalore. Usually, they prefer open habitats including farmlands, groves, and ruins to heavy and dense forests.

It is a squat, white-spotted, greyish-brown owl, approximately the size of a Myna Bird. They have the typical large round head associated with owls and forward-looking yellow eyes. Two races are recognised in India and they are Athene brama indica of northern India and Athene brama brama of southern India. The northern and southern Indian populations intergrade and there is no dividing boundary. The southern race is usually smaller and darker than the northern race.

The owl, in Hindu mythology, is the vahana or vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, but has unfortunately acquired a negative image. The call of an owl is associated with bad omens and this superstition has resulted in their persecution. It is ironical that the species name brama is from the French name Chouette brame and indirectly refers to this owl’s Indian habitat by way of an homage to Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation.

The Spotted Owlet is usually found in pairs or family parties of three or four. They are mostly active from dusk to dawn but can sometimes be seen during the day. When disturbed during the day they fly out to a nearby branch and bob their head and stare at the intruder. The Spotted Owlet is not intolerant of sunlight and its preference for the dark is explained by the behaviour of the daytime birds towards it. The moment it is discovered by birds, it is mercilessly mobbed and harassed by them. To escape this unwanted attention, it prefers to spend the day in the seclusion of a tree hollow, leafy branch or a similar crevice or ledge of a building.

Spotted Owlet

  • Mostly active from dusk to dawn
  • Usually found in pairs or family parties of three or more
  • Feed on beetles, moths, locusts, bats and so on
  • Breeding season from November to April
  • Their call is a chirurrr-chirurrr-chirurrr followed by cheevak, cheevak, cheevak

At dusk, the Spotted Owlet emerges from its retreat to perch on points of vantage including street lamps and telephone/ electric wires. In urban areas, street lights are a favourite hunting base as they attract a variety of insects that are hawked on the wing. They feed chiefly on beetles, moths, locusts and other insects. Earthworms, lizards, mice, bats, toads, small snakes and small birds are also taken.

The breeding season for the Spotted Owlet is from November to April. Courtship behaviour includes bill grasping, preening of the feathers of one bird by another, and ritual feeding. The female may call with the male, bob head and deflect their tail in invitation.

The nest is usually located in a natural hollow of a tree trunk, a hole in a dilapidated wall and between the ceiling and roof of a building — abandoned or occupied. The nest is sometimes lined with a little grass and feathers. Three or four spherical white eggs are laid and incubation begins with the first laid eggs, which results in a wide variation in the size of the chicks.

The young owlets are initially fed on insects such as cockroaches and later small prey such as mice. Of the total eggs laid only one or two chicks may fledge. The incubation period is about 28 to 33 days. The young fledge and remain with parents for a further three weeks. Both, the male and the female share equally in incubating the eggs and in raising the young.

The call of the Spotted Owlet can be described as a harsh screeching chirurrr-chirurrr-chirurrr followed by, or alternating with cheevak, cheevak, cheevak and a variety of other screeches and chuckles. The next time you hear one, don’t worry, for the caller is not a harbinger of bad luck. In fact, like most members of the animal kingdom, it is more sinned against.

The tree that never perishes

Trees, plants and shrubs are all important parts of the urban ecosystem. Without them, there would be very little urban wildlife. It is impossible to separate the animal from its habitat and Bangalore has the privilege of having many varieties of flowering and non-flowering trees. These trees comprise of both native and non-native species that were introduced into the city. Some of these non-native trees have been in India for long that we take them to be native, some have adapted and flourished so well that we now call them ‘naturalised’.

The Frangipani, Champa or Temple Tree (Plumeria sp) is one such tree that was introduced into India. It originates from the warmer parts of America, Jamaica, Guatemala and Mexico. It has been cultivated in India for ages and has acquired local names in different parts of the country. It has even been assimilated into the myths and religious beliefs of our country.

There are 31 identified types of this tree but the most common of these are the P.alba and P.rubra.

It is a medium-sized, deciduous tree with smooth grey-coloured bark. When the bark is pierced a white milky fluid oozes out. This milky substance gives it a few of its common names — Frangipani which is derived from the French word for coagulated milk and the Sanskrit name Kshirachampa which translates as the Milky Champa.

During the leafless phase, the tree looks pale, ugly and gouty. But once it flowers it is transformed into one of the most beautiful of trees. The leaves are large, about a foot long, and are tapered or rounded at the end depending on the variety. They grow in spirals at the end of branches. The flowers appear in the middle of the leaf clusters. They are five-petaled, large and waxy.

The Temple Tree

Ability to bloom even after being uprooted

The bark is grey-coloured, when pierced a milky fluid oozes out

Looks pale during the leafless phase

Tree transforms during the flowering stage

Used widely for medicinal purposes

Of the two common varieties in India — the Alba is white with a yellow centre and the Rubra is deep pink, with white petals. The flower was a favourite of Mughal Emperor Jahangir who described it in The Jahangirnama as “a flower of increasingly sweet fragrance, it has the shape of a saffron flower but is yellow inclining to white. The tree is very symmetrical and large, full of branches and is shady. When in flower one tree will perfume a garden”.

The tree has the ability to bloom even after being uprooted. Because of this ability, it has become a symbol of immortality and is planted by both Buddhists and Muslims next to the tombs of their dead. One of its common names is the Graveyard tree. Due to it being a symbol of immortality the wood of the tree is used by Buddhists to carve the image of the Buddha.

In Hinduism, it is considered to be one of the holiest of trees and is planted near temples (hence the common name the Temple Tree). The flowers of the tree are offered to the gods. It is sacred to Kamadeva, the God of Love, and is considered inauspicious to cut it.

The tree is used widely by humans — a perfume is distilled from its leaves, the root-bark is a strong purgative, and the milky juice is used in the treatment of rheumatism and skin diseases by mixing it with coconut oil. The bark is used in the treatment of diarrhoea.

In Bengaluru, the Temple tree can be found at the premises of the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, near the King’s statue on Cubbon Road, Manipal Centre on Dickenson Road and the premises of the Karnataka High Court.

There is a legend associated with the Champa tree. Long ago there was a king with two wives. The older wife was unable to bear children and conspired to kill all the children borne by the younger wife. She substituted a monkey for the new-born children and over the years seven sons and a daughter met the same fate. All of them were buried outside the palace wall and the younger queen was banished from the palace.

As the years passed seven handsome trees with beautiful fragrant flowers grew outside the palace walls. Along with these seven, there was one smaller, delicate tree. The fame of the trees grew within the kingdom and it was said that only the younger queen could pluck their flowers.

The King heard about this and asked his gardener to bring him some flowers. When the gardener returned empty-handed the King along with the older Queen went to see them. As the older Queen approached the branches of the trees drew back sharply and the cry ‘Murderer’ was heard. Astounded the King went up to the trees, and their leaves nuzzled his face and they asked him to bring their mother to them. When the King enquired about their mother he was told the truth. The older Queen was banished from the kingdom and the younger Queen reinstated. The trees were brought up as their children. The large tree was the Champa and the delicate one Parul.

I wrote this series for our neighbourhood newspaper ‘In & Around Richard’s Town’. While they were written almost ten years ago they still remain relevant today.

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Vikram Nanjappa

Vikram Nanjappa

Described as an interested and well-informed amateur, Vikram’s field of inquiry is ‘Man and Nature: whatever is performed by the one or produced by the other’.