The Spotted Owlet (Athene brama) is a small owl which breeds in tropical Asia from India to Southeast Asia. They are very common species and have adapted to living in cities. They roost in small groups in the hollows of trees or in cavities in rocks or buildings. This species is a part of the larger grouping of owls known as typical owls, Strigidae.
The Spotted Owlet is a common resident bird in open habitats including farmland and human habitation. It nests in a hole in a tree or building, laying 3-5 eggs. Nests near human habitations were found to show higher breeding success with the young being fed a greater number of rodents.
The Spotted Owlet is small (21cm) and stocky. The upperparts are grey-brown, heavily spotted with white. The underparts are white, streaked with brown. The facial disc is pale and the iris is yellow. There is a white neckband and supercilium (line above each eye). Males and females look alike. The flight is deeply undulating. In Baluchistan it overlaps with the Little Owl from which it can be separated by the unstreaked crown and narrow tail bands. The nominate form is darker than the paler forms such as indica of drier regions.
When disturbed from their daytime site, they bob their head and stare at intruders.
Several subspecies have been described but only about five are widely accepted (the race poikila is invalid and refers to Aegolius funereus:
- albida Koelz, 1950 is found in western Asia in Iran and Pakistanindica (Franklin, 1831) is found in northern Indiabrama (Temminck, 1821) is found in southern Indiaultra Ripley, 1948 (not always recognized) is found in northeastern India and is said to have no white spots on mantlepulchra Hume, 1873 is found in Southeast Asia from Myanmar and Thailand into Cambodia and Vietnam
Behaviour and Ecology
This species is nocturnal but is sometimes seen in the day. It can often be located by the small birds that mob it while it is perched in a tree. It hunts a variety of insects and small vertebrates. In Pakistan they have been found to take mostly insect prey. In the arid region of Jodhpur, they have been found to take more rodents (especially in the genus Mus and tend to avoid other rodends such as Tatera) just prior to the breeding season. Bats, toads, small snakes such as Ramphotyphlops braminus have been noted. They may also take scorpions and mollusks.
Brain anatomy reveals that they have a pineal gland, a feature which was said to be absent in the owls. Birds show variation in the melatonin concentration between day and night. A high melatonin level is associated with sleep and low levels are associated with high alertness and foraging activity. Spotted Owlets however show only a slightly lower melatonin concentration at night with a slight increase in the early afternoon. Other owls such as the Barn Owl show little day-night variation. Seasonal changes in glandular activity have been associated with environmental factors such as temperature and humidity.
Breeding / Nesting
The breeding season is November to April. Courtship behaviour includes bill grasping, allopreening and ritual feeding. The female may call with the male, bob head and deflecting their tail in invitation. The social organization of family groups is not clear and multiple males may copulate with a female and females may attempt pseudocopulation in possible displacement coition displays.
They nest in cavities often competing with other hole-nesters such as mynas. They may also nest in holes in vertical embankments. The nest may be lined with leaves and feathers or may use the existing lining from a prior occupant. The typical clutch size is three or four and the white eggs are very spherical (30.9mm long and 26.3 mm wide, 11.6g).
The young were fed mainly with insects such as cockroaches and toads (Bufo stomaticus noted in Gujarat) Only one or two chicks may fledge and they leave the nest in about 20 days.
Calls / Vocalizations
The call is a harsh and loud churring and chuckling chirurr-chirurr-chirurr ending with a chirwak-chirwak and they call mainly during early dawn or just after sunset.
A coccidian parasites, Eimeria atheni has been described from this species. An ectoparasitic mite, Neocheletiella athene has been described from a specimen from the Antwerp zoo. Bird lice of the species Colpocephalum pectinatum are known to be ectoparasites.
These birds being very familiar to humans especially with their loud calling have been associated with bad omens.
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