Halloween Special: Owlfest 2021

All birds are magnificent. They are the only living examples to witness dinosaurs. Look close enough to sharp talons and piercing but hefty beak of the majestic bald eagle, you could see the sculpting hands of the evolution and time that had still imprint of reptiles that once ruled the world. Many times, I witnessed Marabou stork at our local Indianapolis zoo, calmly cooling off nearby pond with concentration of a yogi in Himalayas, completely indifferent to its demeanor. With its exposed scabrous neck and heavy-handed, purely bone beak, one could only think of pterosaurs or pterodactyl who must have stopped evolution long time back. From smallest of the kind, bee hummingbird, to largest in the bird family, Ostrich, each species has developed unique and super-special abilities over large period of time to adapt and survive over thousands of years. COVID-19 has compelled us to change our views and perspectives for many things. Even lot of us has developed new hobby that was never appeared on our interest radar before. As I have mentioned here somewhere, I took up something on birding. And it was always fun to engage in events such as Owlfest, held by nature enthusiasts of Eagle Creek park, to satisfy the urge to be one with nature and its beautiful winged manifestations. What follows is various tidbits, facts, stories, knowledge and wisdom gained and weaved together during few hours of Owlfest-2021.

Fest started late cool morning of October Sunday with short hiking trail into wilderness nearby Ornithology center of the park. Unusual to previous on-setting of winter, this year (2021) trees were not yet showing off their true falls colors and adamantly clung to hues of greens . Early morning is the best time to see diurnal birds in action. We were greeted with couple of Pileated woodpeckers hoping one tree branch to other for early “bark-fast”. Not long after that, we observed one large group or few smaller groups of cowbirds, starlings and blackbirds, chittering incessantly while moving from treetop-to-treetop. Once out of the woods, trailing nearby lake, Great blue heron flew past us over the water to settle down on the branch few feet away from us. Though camouflaged under tree shadow, Great heron had given ample opportunity to adjust our binoculars and monoscopes to observe it in full detail. Before concluding the trail, we had distant but glorious views of flying bald eagle, Cooper’s hawk and red-tailed hawk or sharp-shinned hawk competing over common food sources higher up in the sky.

From purely scientific view, one should have equal liking to all species of birds, but I have special place in the dimly lit labyrinth of my heart and mind where no other species than owl could find a way and placed itself there forever. This mostly nocturnal birds are so much shrouded in darkness that species itself is associated with dark and magic all around the world. Some (or much more) credit goes to immense popularity of Harry Potter books and its author J. K. Rowling where Harry Potter’s personal owl was depicted as cute, cuddly and magical pet. That which owls usually are not. They are cute (see screech owls) but not supposed to be cuddled. And they are definitely not magical, not un-scientifically. Scientifically, they have magical abilities beyond our own senses can comprehend. And for that, they should be heralded as magical creature of the whole world (and not only Potter world).

Back to Ornithology center which was the prime center of further Owlfest activities, we were invited to observe feeding of in-housed Turkey vulture then and Horned owl and Barn owl later in the day. We equally savored the feeding time; figuratively for us, literally for birds. We had special tour of the housed Peregrine Falcon and young Bald eagle that were never exposed to public as they were still settling down in new environment. Ornithology center itself was garlanded with various detailed fact cards and posters related to owls, photo-op booth and auction items related to birds. Outside the center, various desks were setup to enlighten visitors about bird migration, shops selling owl-themed t-shirts and paraphernalia, games for kids and various Harry Potter universe props for more photo opportunities. Hot coco and popcorn were up for grab nominally $1 each to help financing the good cause of supporting such endeavors. There was even spot allocated for s’mores.

In mythology: Owl is Greek goddess Minerva’s vehicle. In Hindu mythology, it is vehicle of goddess Lakshmi. Mostly owl is associated with wisdom, prosperity, wealth and fortune. Ridiculously, at the same time, Hindi language degraded owl by comparing it with fools and lowly creature. Most other cultures, adapted the idea of owls connected with occult and magic rituals. Owls been hunted by so called shamans and occultists in India for centuries. Its been also considered as harbinger of death since Roman era and idea had seeped into other cultures as well. One reason for such tidings is that Owl is nocturnal bird and prefer to hunt its prey at night or at dusk. Its hunting accuracy rate is quite high. Unbeknownst to its physiology and skills, humans have attributed occult meaning and power to owl’s nightly presence. Mythology asides, owl has magical power of millions more rode cells than us humans to see clearly in the pitch dark. It is said that owl can read a newspaper placed at one goal post at night with all the lights off but single candle in the middle of the field from other end of the ground situated at opposite goal post. Isn’t it amazing? If not, here’s one more magical fact: owl has doubled neck bones (14 in total) than mammals and hence turn its neck 270 degree in the circle. Any mammal will die much before that due to severed neck arteries and tendons. Here’s more. Owl’s hearing capacity is almost 10 times much better than us. If owl can see better, hear better and “act” better than who could be considered as “Ullu” (derogatory word in Hindi for owls which means fool).

Hot cocoa and popping corns by fireside in misting early afternoon was all it took to get us ready for live raptors show. We had been to many such shows and it never failed to amaze us how beautiful all these birds are. Big curious horned owl, snowy Gyrfalcon, small adorable screech owl and impatient barn owl were on display by live show’s erudite and jocular presenter. Owls usually gulped down their prey in chunks; with hair and tails and bones. Once digested, all such non-digestible material is vomited as ball shaped pellets. This biological process itself also called pelleting in zoology. One such stop in the Owlfest was dedicated to analyze pellets from the owl. It sounds gross but with curious mind of naturalist one might find out various bones of small creatures and other stuff (Reminds me of the scene of my favorite movie “Jurassic Park” where they start digging through feces of sick Triceratops).

In Popular culture: Now that I’m actively thinking/searching pop culture references for owls, I realized that there aren’t many. Harry potter’s pet owl might be the most famous one. There was popular animated movie Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole directed by DC superhero movie spearhead Zac Snyder. Also, DC comics had wonderful Batman story arc with unbeatable adversary as court of owls where assassins were in garb and gear pertaining to owls. When we are talking about assassins, let’s discuss two more positive points about owls in ecology. Owls’ feathers are silky smooth and purely adapted for soundless flight. Unlike ninja’s, owls won’t have to make any special effort to silence their approach to its quarry. They are born to kill and hunt efficiently. One pair of mice can produce approximately 90 offspring over a year. Even half of them survived then also you’ll be facing global level catastrophe in a decade. One baby owl can eat 8-10 mice per day (or night). Owls are the most effective way of pest controlling mice. So any reduction in owls will in turn impact us humans in one or the other severe way.

As closing remark, I would only insist that its not about event but message at its heart what matters. Time has changed rapidly then we all can comprehend. What was norm before is out of fashion today and today’s fashion statement is knowledge and utter respect towards environment and wildlife. In this digital era of information downpour, one is not entitled to be ignorant about something, especially ecology. Gone are the days when knowing physiology of bird or animal was only restricted to scientific community. It’s now duty of all of us to pay attention, be informed and take active steps to prevent birds and animals like owl to be lost in eternal darkness.

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