Serenading a visiting owl
A MAGICAL thing happened on the night of October 3. I got a call from a neighbour that there was an owl outside her door. It had not moved for a couple of hours and she thought it might be injured. Could I help? I had absolutely no idea what to do…so I thought for a bit and figured: maybe if I take a sheet and try and put it over the owl, I might be able to pick it up, take it out from the stairwell and see what happens.
I called a couple of people to see if they had advice and could send a rescue team if required. Bahar Dutt, who is the go-to person in Delhi for snakes, responded almost immediately, while I was walking to the neighbour’s. She warned me that I might actually hurt the owl’s wings using the sheet, and also that owls can bite quite hard, so I should watch out! Get gloves, she suggested.
Gulp! Anyway, I reached the spot and found the owl huddled in a corner. It looked like a barn owl, and cowered when I approached. So I sat down on the stairs in front of her/him. I tried to make soft hooting noises, but they sounded totally unconvincing! So I whistled a song softly. I whistled “Raat ke Musafir”, a song from Gulaal, which I had sung for the film. It seemed appropriate. In about a minute or so, the owl opened her eyes wide and regarded me intently. Then she walked right up to me, and then past me, brushing past me, to sit on the steps behind me.
I continued whistling softly. She flexed her wings, which were a beautiful mottled brown, and hopped up to the railing but couldn’t get a grip, so hopped back to the other side of the stairwell, from where she could see the skies. And then she just took a few steps and quietly flew into the night!
My Bengali mother would have regarded this encounter with a “Lokkhi’r paincha” (Lakshmi’s owl…the vaahan of Goddess Lakshmi) on the night of Nobomi (the ninth day of Durga Puja) as an extremely auspicious event. The barn owl features in all the Durga Puja idols, as do the lion, swan, mouse and peacock (the vaahans of Durga, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartikeya, respectively). Nobomi also happens to be my mother’s jonmotithi (birthday according to the traditional calendar of Bengali Hindus), and the family remembers her specially on this night every year.
I have seen barn owls before, but never from so close. Barn owls and the spotted owlet are two species of owls that have adapted to city life in India. Barn owls often nest on inaccessible ledges in relatively tall buildings, and can be seen flying at night. Spotted owlets are much more commonly seen, as they emerge during daylight and make a racket! Spotted owlets nest in holes in trees.
I’m sure there are other species of owls present in Delhi, but I have never seen them. It’s quite amazing that these wondrous creatures continue to persist in a city that is becoming increasingly polluted, and loud and all concretized, but then that is the wonder of Delhi — that, thanks to still extant greenery and the Yamuna, we have over 200 species of birds spotted in Delhi. In my neighbourhood, a half-hour walk on a routine day can result in my seeing over 20 species of birds!