By J. Arockiaraj
The numerous hillocks in Madurai have been home to a large number of Indian eagle owls, but their number has dwindled in the last decade due to illegal granite quarrying and poaching.
The predatory birds (also called rock eagle owls) have lost a huge portion of their habitat due to quarrying activities and poaching, says Ambudoss Arvind, a rodentologist and bird researcher in Madurai.
An associate professor of agriculture with Arul Anandar College, Arvind carried out an independent study of the nesting sites of the rock eagle owl twice in the past two decades. Rock eagle owls use the same nesting site repeatedly. In the first study in 1995-96, he noted 63 nesting sites in the hillocks of Madurai. But the second study carried out in 2008-09 revealed 20 nesting sites. "The nesting sites might have come down to 10, if we conduct a study now," he said.
According to ornithologists, rock eagle owls, barn owls and spotted owlets are the owl species found in the district. The owl population plays a significant role in controlling the rodent menace in fields. They feed on various rat varieties and the rock eagle owl, in particular, feeds on larger rats that cause most damage to crops, they say.
P Badrinarayanan, a Madurai-based ornithologist, says owls are important in controlling rodents. Both spotted owlets and barn owls are found in the city. Barn owls take shelter on temple towers. When the temples are renovated, their nesting grounds are disturbed, but they return to the sites, he said.
With some difficulty, a rock eagle owl can be spotted in Kunnampatti near Chekkanurani on the outskirts of the city. Villagers said there were not many on the hillock at present. Alagumalai from the village said there had been many earlier. "They were hunted because people believe they have medicinal value," he said. "The common false belief is claiming these birds. And research on owls is also comparatively less because of the belief that owls are an ill-omen," said Badrinarayanan.