IDUKKI: The superstition goes that the spot-bellied eagle (SBE) owl, a large bird of prey with a formidable appearance, brings bad luck and death. They have been persecuted and killed for this reason. Many people in Marayur village, in Idukki, too believed in the omen, but not any longer. The owls are being conserved and looked after, thanks to the efforts of a set of environmentalists and local people, who convinced all how they are of big help to farmers in keeping pests away.
And the forest eagle owl (kattu moonga), which otherwise could be spotted only in dense evergreen forests, has become a regular sight on Marayur’s roadside, evoking curiosity of tourists and nature buffs alike. “I spotted a pair of SBE owls, nestled in the cavity of a large tree on the highway side at Melady, Marayur, last November. A few local people had called me to see off the owl, as it has been considered the viceroy of Yaman (lord of death in Hindu mythology); a sign of bad luck or death,” said Rajadurai, a naturalist and tourist guide working at Marayur.
“I was so surprised to see this rare species of nocturnal bird, found normally in dense forests, nestled alongside the highway. “Instead of shooing them away from their habitat, I started creating awareness among the local settlers on the importance of conserving these species and how we human beings can benefit from them,” said Rajadurai.
As a first step, he convinced the farmers, who comprise 90 per cent of Marayur’s population, how these owls weighing 1.3-1.5 kg help them, especially in rodent elimination. “An SBE owl pair with a family of owlets can consume a total of 2,500 voles and other rodents over the course of a year making them effective pest controllers. A few people were hesitant to let the SBE owls live in their neighbourhood due to superstition, but most others came forward offering support to conserve them. “As people stopped disturbing them, the birds started laying eggs in the tree cavity,” said Rajadurai.
Naturalists from Bengaloru, Pune, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have come to see the rare sight of SBE bird nestled on trees with its hatched young ones. It has also attracted foreign tourists, national and international photographers, other than mediapersons.
And the local people are doing small business, thanks to the tourists. That is the kind of turnaround made by the owl, which was once considered a bird of bad omen.