The first bird that many remember from childhood might be an owl. In my case, there was a massive Krishnachura tree just behind our house. A family of owls lived in a cavity in the tree about twenty feet from the ground where the trunk forked into two main branches. Whenever I looked at them they stared back intensely. Being a child, I found this unsettling and avoided going under the tree.
Humans have attributed significance and meaning to owls for as long as 30,000 years – the age of a cave painting of an owl in the South of France. In folklore, owls have been considered mysterious and evil in many cultures, portents of bad luck. However, in other cultures owls are a symbol of wisdom. For example, the Bangla name of Barn Owl is Lokkhi Pecha. Lokkhi means bearer of good luck.
The main reason why people are fascinated by owls is their eyes. Compared to the size of their heads, owls' eyes are large. They are set facing forward (eyes of other birds face sideways.) They often stare back, unblinking, creating uneasiness. They are also immobile and owls must rotate their head 180 degrees to "look around."
At the same time, their eyes give owls fantastic vision, particularly at night. The retina of an eye, where light is collected, contains millions of sensors of two types: rods and cones. Rods are sensitive to low light and cones are sensitive to brighter light. The owl's retina contains a preponderance of rods giving them extraordinary nocturnal vision. Coupled with acute hearing and fast, silent flight, owls succeed as nocturnal predators, hunting by night and resting by day. They catch rodents, small mammals, fish, insects and smaller birds with their sharp claws.
There are two hundred odd species of owls in the world, seen in all continents except Antarctica. They are divided into the owl family (Strigidae) and the barn owl family (Tytonidae). The latter is characterized by a heart-shaped face, as seen in Barn Owls.
In Bangladesh we can see thirteen species of owls covering a gamut of sizes from just larger than a sparrow to the size of a kite. The Spotted Owlet and the Asian Barred Owlet are, in my experience, our most common owls. Brown Hawk-owl, Brown Fish Owl and Collared Scops Owl can also be seen with some effort. Barn Owls can be seen in the city – a kind friend alerted me once when he saw it in his Banani backyard and allowed me to photograph it. The Buffy Fish Owl, a rare species, can be seen in Sundarban. I saw it deep inside the forest from a boat – it was enormous, almost the size of a monkey. The Short-eared Owl is seen in the chars of the Padma but my day-long search for it was fruitless. Our other owls are rare and live deep in the forests of Sylhet and the Hill Tracts.
A good place to see owls is Dhaka's National Botanical Garden. Look for cavities in the larger tree trunks for Spotted Owlets; a Brown Fish Owl is also known to hang out in the garden. The tea gardens of Sylhet have many Asian Barred Owlets. If you are looking for an owl in a rural area it is worth asking local villagers since owls tend to stay in the same tree.
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