14 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Owls of Singapore

Today marks a significant milestone in a much-loved book and film series; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the concluding instalment of the movies, is being released in cinemas throughout Singapore today. Ever since the first of the books was released in 1997 (and the first movie in 2001), audiences everywhere have been captivated by the adventures of Harry Potter and his friends in Hogwarts, as well as his epic struggle against his nemesis, the Dark Lord Voldemort.

Given that the story revolves around a magical world where wizards and witches routinely create potions and cast spells on one another, a great deal of the so-called 'wildlife' are based on mythical creatures. Fantastic wildlife such as acromantulas, Hungarian horntails, hippogriffs, phoenixes, and basilisks are unfortunately not known to us muggles (people incapable of wielding magic). However, there are several species that are very much real creatures, the owls.

In the stories, owls are used to aid communication, delivering letters, parcels, and newspapers and magazines. The most notable owl of all is Harry Potter's familiar, Hedwig, depicted as a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), although several other owl species are featured.

You can find out more about the owls in Harry Potter in this post over at my blog. All but one of the owl species featured in the Harry Potter movies are not found in Singapore, but they do have relatives that swoop through our forests and even in our parks and gardens at night. Ten species of owl have been recorded in Singapore, with a variety of sizes and preferred habitats. Some are considered common resident breeders, while others are occasional winter visitors and passage migrants.


Some of our owls are often found living in urban areas close to people.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba);
(Photo by chrisli023)

The barn owl is a widespread species that is found on every continent except Antarctica, and is the only local species of owl that is mentioned in the Harry Potter stories. It earns its name due to the fact that it is often found nesting in buildings, occupying barn lofts and attics in houses. An account of the nesting habits of the barn owl can be found here.

A bird of open areas and grasslands, this owl is considered to be an excellent form of rodent control. In Malaysia, barn owls are encouraged to breed in nest boxes placed in oil palm plantations and rice fields, so as to reduce crop losses from rats, which can become very abundant in agricultural areas. In fact, barn owls were uncommon in Singapore until the 1960s and 1970s, when the population exploded in Peninsular Malaysia as a result of the spread of oil palm plantations. No doubt, many owls dispersed from these plantations in search of new hunting grounds, and some must have made their way to Singapore.

Recently, there have been a number of incidents in which barn owls accidentally enter underground MRT stations, requiring people to remove them. For example, an owl was seen at Toa Payoh in February this year.

Barn owl at Toa Payoh MRT Station;
(Photos from STOMP)

In March, the Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES) Wildlife Rescue team rescued a barn owl that had flown into Stadium MRT Station. Similarly, it had to move an barn owl that had become trapped inside Punggol LRT Station, and guide it to the exit.

Barn owl at Stadium MRT Station;
(Photo from ACRES Facebook page)

Barn owl at Punggol LRT Station;
(Photo from ACRES Facebook page)

Despite being common in many places throughout the world, barn owls do face a variety of threats. For example, it has been claimed that barn owls used to be more abundant on Sentosa, but many died as a result of eating rats that had consumed poison.

Because they favour open areas, and often fly close to the ground, barn owls are at great risk of being struck by vehicles. One such possible victim of a collision with a vehicle was found in the Marina Bay Golf Course, and did not survive.

Elsewhere, barn owls have been found electrocuted by live wires, while here in Singapore, another threat comes from discarded fishing lines that are sometimes irresponsibly left behind in trees. Birds (including barn owls) are inadvertently entangled and often end up strangling or seriously injuring themselves as they struggle to break free. One such incident occurred at Punggol Beach in August 2009. Distressingly enough, the people who witnessed it did not know who to contact, and watched the owl die.

Dead barn owl, Punggol;
(Photo from STOMP)

Another barn owl that faced the same fate was rescued in Sembawang in December last year. Christened (appropriately enough for this post) Hedwig, it was kept under observation by ACRES for some time and eventually released.

Collared Scops Owl (Otus lempiji);
(Photo by Francis Yap)

Another species of owl commonly found in Singapore is the Sunda scops owl. This is one of the smallest of our owls, growing less than 25 centimetres in length, and is apparently the most common of our owls, with sightings even taking place in housing estates like Toa Payoh.

The taxonomy of this species can be quite confusing. Previously, it had been thought to be a subspecies of the collared scops owl (Otus bakkamoena), a wide-ranging species supposedly found throughout India and Southeast Asia. However, in recent decades, many subspecies were split off as distinct species in their own right. The name Otus bakkamoena is now used to refer to the Indian scops owl, a species restricted to the Indian subcontinent, while a species found in India, East Asia, and Indochina now bears the name of collared scops owl (Otus lettia). Those scops owl populations found in southern Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, and the Greater Sunda Islands of Indonesia have been given the label of Sunda scops owl. This is why in many local publications, you will still find the Sunda scops owl listed as the collared scops owl, and bearing the scientific name of the Indian scops owl.

Regardless of its name, the Sunda scops owl is another species that readily adapts to humans, being found in secondary forests and woodland, parks, gardens, and plantations, but avoids primary forest. Given its dimunitive size, this owl preys heavily on large insects such as grasshoppers and crickets, mantids, moths and beetles. Small birds such as munias and nestlings have been recorded as prey, as well as rodents. Geckos are another major component of the Sunda scops owl's diet.

Sunda scops owl with gecko prey, Hillview Avenue;
(Photo by Lee Tiah Kee)

Breeding has been reported here, and the Bird Ecology Study Group blog has an account of a fledgling being fed by one of its parents, as well as a failed nesting in Mount Faber. While Sunda scops owls nest in cavities and tree holes, one notable record consists of a pair that nested on a ledge in the porch of a house in Alexandra.

Juvenile Sunda scops owls, Jurong Lake;
(Photo by NatureInYourBackyard)

Brown Hawk-owl (Ninox scutulata);
(Photo by chrisli023)

A third common owl species in Singapore is the brown hawk-owl, also sometimes known as the brown boobook. This species and its relatives are somewhat more hawk-like in appearance compared to other owls, lacking a facial disc and possessing a long tail, features that give it a shape more reminiscent of hawks, hence the name.

This species is both a resident and winter visitor; most sightings take place in forested areas in the centre of mainland Singapore, with a few scattered records in other parts.

Brown hawk owl, Venus Drive;
(Photo by luenny)

These outliers from places such as Pulau Ubin and Sentosa are suspected to either represent stray individuals that wandered out of the forests, or could also belong to the northern subspecies, which breeds in China, Korea, Russia and Japan. Birds from these northern populations migrate during the winter months, with some of them reaching Singapore and adding to the numbers of the local resident population. However, in another example of how owl taxonomy can be quite a messy affair, the northern subspecies has been split off as a separate species, the northern boobook (Ninox japonica). This has not been universally accepted, but it means that Singapore may turn out to have an additional species of owl, albeit one that is an occasional winter visitor.

Northern boobook, Japan;
(Photo by jcowboy)

Two species of owl are much larger, and are restricted to forested habitats. Another thing they share in common is the fact that both were once very rare and even thought to be on the brink of extinction in Singapore.

Spotted Wood Owl (Strix seloputo);
(Photo by kampang)

The spotted wood owl is one of the largest owl species found in Singapore. Once thought to be down to just six to ten birds in the 1990s, numbers appear to have risen somewhat, and this species, while still uncommon, is being seen in many locations around Singapore, including the islands of St. John's Island, Sentosa, and Pulau Ubin.

There are many reports (with excellent photos) of spotted wood owls, documenting behaviour such as preening, stretching, and sunbathing, as well as encounters that were the result of the owl being spotted and mobbed by other birds, hence attracting the attention of people.

It might be a good sign that some recent sightings of spotted wood owls in urban parks are of juveniles, accompanied by their parents.

Spotted wood owl juvenile with adult, Japanese Garden;
(Photo by hiker1974)

A new favourite location for bird photographers wanting to capture images of this species is at Pasir Ris Park. Even though the spotted wood owl is found mostly in forests, it has also been seen at urban locations such as Suntec City and Chinatown. The fact that it is frequently seen in oil palm plantations in Peninsular Malaysia (though not in such numbers like the barn owl) hints that the spotted wood owl might be more ecologically flexible than we expect.

Buffy Fish Owl (Bubo ketupu);
(Photo by myrontay)

The largest local species of owl is the buffy fish owl; with a body length of 50 centimetres, it is fully twice the length of the Sunda scops owl. As its name suggests, this is a specialist on fish, and is usually found close to water or in coastal areas such as mangroves.

Several interesting features related to its piscivorous diet make this species stand out from other owls. Unlike many other owl species, the buffy fish owl does not have fully feathered legs; feathers on the legs would get drenched and waterlogged due to frequent plunging into water, so these have been lost by fish owls. Sharp spicules on the underside of its toes enables the owl to grab on to slippery fish. And finally, while silent flight is a hallmark of owls' mastery of nocturnal hunting, the buffy fish owl and its relatives have actually lost the soft fringes that are found along the rear edge of the wing feathers in other owl species, which enables owls to fly without making a single sound. Since fishes don't pick up airborne sounds very well, there is little need for the buffy fish owl to conceal the sound of its approach as it swoops in for the kill.

Besides fish, buffy fish owls will also take other aquatic organisms such as frogs and crustaceans, while small birds and mammals have also been recorded as part of their diet. Interestingly enough, fish owls often descend to the ground and wait along the water's edge, or even wade into the shallows, waiting for prey to swim within striking range.

Buffy fish owl in shallows, Lower Peirce;
(Photo by SC Lim2010)

Once thought to be reduced to just four birds during the 1990s, the buffy fish owl remains rare locally, although it is seen more often these days. It is not known whether the increase in frequency of sightings is just the result of more birdwatchers and photographers searching for a tiny number of birds, or whether it reflects a genuine increase in population. In Singapore, buffy fish owls are most often found in forests around the reservoirs of the Central Catchment Area, and have also been spotted in the Western Catchment Area, including Sungei Buloh. Sightings from the Singapore Botanic Gardens may represent stragglers from the Central Catchment Area. Pulau Ubin is another stronghold for this species, while an individual was seen on Sentosa in 2006 and 2007, close to the cable car station; however, it has since vanished, possibly due to disturbance as a result of development works for Resorts World Sentosa. The Green Corridor proposal also mentions buffy fish owl as being recorded in the secondary forests of Clementi Woodlands. In Malaysia, buffy fish owls have also been found in plantations and flooded rice fields.

A juvenile at Lower Peirce that was the subject of much attention from bird enthusiasts almost became the victim of human irresponsibility when it got its feet entangled in some discarded fishing line.

Winter visitors & Passage Migrants

These owls I have talked about so far are all residents, breeding and living in Singapore all year round. Owls are not usually thought of as migratory birds, but some species do undertake long journeys during the winter months. Individuals of these migratory species have been seen here from time to time, and the occasional sightings are often considered very special and remarkable.

Oriental Scops Owl (Otus sunia);
(Photo by Sin Yee)

The Oriental scops owl is slightly smaller than the Sunda scops owl, and it is remarkable to think that this small bird actually migrates during winter. There are quite a few reports from Singapore, with most of them coming from forests and wooded areas in mainland Singapore. The first record came from Fort Canning Park in 1916, with more recent sightings in places such as Sime Road, Mount Faber, Sungei Buloh, Changi, Kent Ridge, and Macritchie Reservoir. The Bird Ecology Study Group has a full list of records, as well as some comments from local naturalist R. Subaraj, who helped rescue and release one of these owls that had crashed into a house near Upper Changi Road.

Some observations are even made in urban areas. For example, an Oriental scops owl was seen in Sembawang (another writeup of this sighting has been published here), while my friend Sin Yee saw another individual outside her home in Simei last November. She tweeted about it and snapped a photo, and I suggested over Twitter that it might be an Oriental scops owl.

(Click to enlarge)

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), Taiwan;
(Photo by Arthur (E83))

The short-eared owl is even more rarely seen. This is a truly cosmopolitan species, occurring on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. There are even populations on oceanic islands such as the Galapagos and Hawaiian Islands!

This is a bird of open grasslands, and is often seen flying during the day. Northern populations are migratory, and there are a few sightings from Singapore during the winter months, mostly from reclaimed land, grassland and open beach scrub areas. For example, among the recent records, a pair was seen at Changi South in 1988, one was seen at Marina East in 1990, and up to three birds were spotted in open scrub and grassland at Changi Beach in 2006.

Extinct? Returning? Visitors from Malaysia?

Besides these species, there are two more species which were previously recorded in Singapore, but are thought to be locally extinct, probably due to the extensive deforestation that we have experienced. However, recent sightings suggest that either they never really completely vanished from Singapore, or might be in the process of recolonising former haunts. It remains to be seen whether these sightings are of stray individuals, or are a hint of an eventual re-establishment of breeding populations.

Oriental Bay Owl (Phodilus badius);
(Photo by hiker1974)

The Oriental bay owl is a relative of the barn owl, but one that is restricted to forested habitats throughout much of Southeast Asia. Apart from a specimen that was collected in 1950 but is now lost, the only other records of this species are of unconfirmed calls from Bukit Timah in 1980 and 1996. With regrowth of forests in many parts of Singapore, it is always possible that dispersal and vagrants from Peninsular Malaysia will lead to recolonisation.

Barred Eagle Owl (Bubo sumatranus);
(Photo by paulwu2009)

Similarly, the barred eagle owl was considered to be rare, and presumed to be either extinct or at most an occasional visitor from Peninsular Malaysia. Recent records include an individual seen at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in 1996 and 1997, as well as sightings (possibly the same bird) from the forest of the Central Catchment area in 1998, 2001 and 2008. In January 2009, there was a confirmed sighting from Pulau Ubin by Marcus Chua, the first from an offshore island. This sighting also provided us with the first local photo of this species.

Barred eagle owl, Pulau Ubin;
(Photo by Marcus Chua)

The barred eagle owl is a large species about the size of the spotted wood owl, and is known to take large prey, even including monkeys.

Barred eagle owl with young long-tailed macaque, Panti Forest;
(Photo by Rane Wong)

In an interesting twist, I learnt about one more species of owl recorded in Singapore while doing research for this post.

Brown Wood Owl (Strix leptogrammica);
(Photo by C&W Nilnond)

The brown wood owl was formerly thought to be completely absent from Singapore. However, almost by accident, I stumbled upon this set of presentation slides from the National Parks Board, which mentioned the discovery that brown wood owls had been found breeding in Pulau Ubin by Justin Tan and Robert Teo just last December! I also managed to find this small set of photographs, which included three photos of brown wood owls labeled as being found in Pulau Ubin.

It certainly is very exciting to learn about such discoveries, proving that there is so much more to learn about Singapore's biodiversity. The brown wood owl was never recorded from Singapore in the past; we may never know whether this newest report of breeding on Ubin marks the return of a formerly locally extinct species, or signifies that these birds are colonising a new place. But it definitely goes to show that even our small and somewhat degraded patches of forests still contain many surprises.

Juvenile brown wood owl, Pulau Ubin;
(Photo from Tan Wee Lee's presentation)

Threats to owls

Here in Singapore, the biggest threats would appear to be loss of habitat, especially for those owl species more heavily dependent on forested areas. Poaching might also take its toll, even if owls are not intended targets; as seen in some local examples, discarded fishing lines might ensnare unwary owls, and these birds may fall prey to similar traps meant for other wildlife. Trespassers may also inadvertently disturb owls and cause them to abandon formerly secure areas used to rest and raise their young.

Because owls are often seen as charismatic predatory birds, they are the focus of attention from many photographers. Hence there is always the risk of unethical behaviour cropping up, including clearing of vegetation or harassing the owl in order to capture the perfect shot. Other practices which are meant to lure the owl within range, which might include playback of calls and baiting with mice, could be harmful if overdone. Blasting the owl with bright flashes of light are also likely to cause it great stress or even physical damage to its eyes.

Elsewhere in Asia, owls are at risk of being deliberately caught for various reasons. Perhaps the most distressing report comes from Malaysia, where a raid in November 2008 revealed that hundreds of owls had been caught, plucked and wrapped in plastic, almost certainly meant for human consumption overseas. The haul included 796 barn owls, 95 spotted wood owls, 14 buffy fish owls, 8 barred eagle owls and 4 brown wood owls. It was certainly a big surprise, even to experts familiar with the horrific scale of the wildlife trade in Asia, since it was the first time there was any evidence of such great demand for owl meat.

Owls plucked and ready for the cooking pot;
(Photo by Chris R Shepherd/TRAFFIC)

There is also a fair bit of live trade in owls; owls in neighbouring countries are caught to be sold as pets.

Juvenile scops owl (Otus sp.), Pasar Burung Satria (Bali Bird Market);
(Photo by piedbutcher)

Adult scops owl (Otus sp.), Pasar Ngasem (Yogyakarta Bird Market);
(Photo by PIXistenz)

After the first of the Harry Potter films was released, there were fears that there would an increased demand for pet owls, especially snowy owls in particular.

Virtually all owl species are completely unsuitable as house pets, since they tend to be nocturnal, require large quantities of meat or other animal-based food, and can be powerful and dangerous to those not trained in handling birds of prey. Although Hedwig and other owls in the Harry Potter movies spend a fair bit of screen time in small cages, owls in real life require lots of space, and their upkeep in terms of providing adequate food, housing, veterinary care and so on can be prohibitively expensive. Definitely not the ideal pet for most people.

Last November, a report about the plight of India's owls was released. Entitled Imperilled Custodians of the Night, it covers the widespread trapping, trade, and use of owls in India, despite all hunting and trade in owls being illegal under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 of India.

Much of this trade is driven by superstition, totems and taboos; a large number of owls are captured for black magic rituals involving owl body parts and organs, or the sacrifice of live owls. Even wealthy businessmen and politicians may turn to such rituals in order to ensure success. Owls may also be used in street performances, where they are trained to drop 'charmed' amulets into the hands of people, who then buy these amulets to ward off evil. Interestingly enough, owls are also involved in the capture of other birds. By using a captive owl as a decoy, songbirds naturally begin to mob the predator, only to get trapped by twigs covered in glue that have been scattered around the owl.

A list of owl body parts used in traditional occult rituals in India;
(Click to enlarge)

Other threats facing owls in various parts of India include the capture of owls for pets and zoological collections, killing for taxidermy and meat, use in folk medicines, and for their talons and feathers, which may be used in headgear. While the study did not explicitly point fingers at Harry Potter for driving trade in owls, the principal author, Abrar Ahmed, was inspired to undertake this study after an incident involving Harry Potter and owls. As he says in the preface:
In India today, theme parties are becoming more and more fashionable. At the beginning of 2008, I received a call from a wealthy friend's wife requesting a favour. To my surprise, she asked for a live white-coloured owl to be present at her son's tenth birthday party. Knowing my association with birds, she was quite confident that I would heed to her request. Perplexed, I asked if I was to provide the owl as a gift or whether it was required for some black magic ritual on her son's birthday. She quickly clarified: "No, the party theme is 'Harry Potter' and we want to have 'Hedwig' – Harry's pet owl. Please ask someone to capture and bring the owl to us. We can pay the cost.
To many people in India, stories about magical wizards and the owls they possess would thus fit in well with their pre-existing beliefs of owls having mystical and supernatural powers.

When this report was released, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was quoted as mentioning the role of Harry Potter in contributing to the decline of owls in India. This was the angle that was picked up by the global media, although the author of the stories, JK Rowling herself, has gone on record stating:
There has been a spate of stories in the press recently concerning the upswing in popularity of keeping owls as pets, allegedly as a result of the Harry Potter books. If it is true that anybody has been influenced by my books to think that an owl would be happiest shut in a small cage and kept in a house, I would like to take this opportunity to say as forcefully as I can: please don't.
Here in Singapore, our owls do not face such persecution, although there is always the possibility that some poaching occurs. Habitat loss and harassment by people may be far greater threats, and of course, it is important to emphasise the important role of owls as predators. At least here there's no risk of owls getting struck by the Killing Curse, like poor Hedwig in the final book of the series.

More articles about our owls in general can be found in this article in Nature Watch, as well as this post by the Bird Ecology Study Group. An overview of owl biology can also be found in this excellent post by Darren Naish.

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