Click, click, hoot, hoot: How one man photographed all species of owls in India

Published : Jul 29, 2023 14:29 IST - 5 MINS READ

A barn owl in Gurgaon

A barn owl in Gurgaon | Photo Credit: Dhiraj Singh 

The Indian subcontinent is home to about 38 species of owls. One fine day, Dhiraj Singh set out to click them all. Here’s what happened.

“I want to photograph all the owls in the Indian subcontinent in one year,” I said.

And the replies were:

Mother: What will you gain from it?

Boss: What will the business community think?

Wife: Will you get very tanned finding them?

Kids: Cool!

Friends: Just take a selfie!

I love owls: those unique birds that are the craze of the moment. They are all over Instagram—huge, bright eyes peering out of an almost-human face, giving cats and dogs a run for their money when it comes to cuteness. J.K. Rowling might have got something to do with the owl’s current fandom—everybody wants to have a snowy owl like Harry’s Hedwig for a pet—but the owl recurs frequently in myth and history too. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, has the owl as her vahana; Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, has one perched on her shoulders; the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan was reportedly saved by an owl; they are mentioned by Pliny, Virgil, Ovid and in The Mahabharata.

A spotted owlet in Gurgaon

A spotted owlet in Gurgaon | Photo Credit: Dhiraj Singh 

However, my love for owls has got nothing to do with these associations. I love them just like that, just because they are! So, ignoring the baffled questions of friends and strangers alike, I set out to photograph them in 2022although, at that point, I had never used any camera other than the one in my mobile phone. While visiting national parks, I would look at photographers flaunting their long lens cameras with envy while my wife looked at me with pity.

A dusky eagle owl in Haryana

A dusky eagle owl in Haryana | Photo Credit: Dhiraj Singh 

I decided to graduate myself and turned for help to my tech-savvy younger son. He made me buy a camera that was very tough on the pocket, but ironically very easy to fit in my pocket. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the pictures I clicked with that camera. After some trials and error, I finally got what I wanted—a DSLR camera. All I needed now was to find the exotic owls.

The “find” part proved to be the real challenge because I had no idea of the areas they are commonly seen. I had no knowledge of ornithology when I began: I wasn’t even an amateur birder. But once I had set out, there was no turning back. I had to “capture” them, keep them as images to be cherished forever. Once I started researching, I was moved to tears on learning how thousands of owls are hunted and killed for fun, food and superstition; trapped and smuggled; used for black magic and quack medicines. I heard stories of necklaces made with talons of the tawny owl in Kashmir or vermillion smeared on the faces of owls for luck in eastern India. After reading about these abuses, I was keen to create awareness about the enigmatic and endangered birds through photographs documenting their beauty and variety.

A short-eared owl in the Little Rann of Kutch

A short-eared owl in the Little Rann of Kutch | Photo Credit: Dhiraj Singh 

The journey started. I invoked Lakshmi to help me find her vahana. In India, on Diwali night, owls are captured and killed so that Lakshmi is not able to leave the homes of the worshippers. I felt that Lakshmi has an obligation to help me since she is partly responsible for the massacre. The blackmail seemed to have worked, for she helped me generously in the quest.

Also read:An effort to save the enigmatic owls in India

After travelling in a boat for more than 12 hours in the peak monsoons in the backwaters of the Sunderbans (while keeping an eye out for man-eating tigers), a kite appeared from nowhere and flew above as if asking us to follow it. We went after it impulsively and when it perched on a tree top, what did we find on a lower branch of the same tree? A buffy fish owl—a large bird with two tufts of feather resembling horns sprouting from its head and glittering yellow eyes.

The buffy fish owl in the Sunderbans

The buffy fish owl in the Sunderbans | Photo Credit: Dhiraj Singh 

On another occasion, after walking in scorching heat in the Tansa forests near Nashik for more than eight hours, when I was almost about to give up in fatigue and frustration, a bird suddenly flew down and perched on a tree right before me. It was the forest owlet, a critically endangered species that has the looks of a startled cat hanging from branches. It looked at me sceptically for a moment and flew away. But I managed to get hold of it again within the next hour.

The forest owlet in Tansa

The forest owlet in Tansa | Photo Credit: Dhiraj Singh 

The Indian subcontinent is home to about 38 species of owls—I have photographed them all by now. For my final owl, the Serendib scops owl, I had to climb a steep hillock in the rainforests of Sri Lanka in pouring rain, with leeches crawling all over my body. We found the owl hidden behind leaves on a tree. I put one foot on a slope while my guide held my other foot, contorted my body like a gymnast, and focussed my camera at the owl. And then my camera jammed! For the most agonising five minutes of my life, the world became a blur.

The Serendib scops owl in Sri Lanka

The Serendib scops owl in Sri Lanka | Photo Credit: Dhiraj Singh 

Ultimately, fate took pity on me and the camera started working again. It was like the climactic fight in a Bollywood movie where the villain almost wins before the hero makes the final comeback.

I hope that my photographs (compiled in my recent book, Owl Out) will help in the research of owls in India, by motivating people to learn more about this nocturnal bird. It is our duty to preserve the owl, which has been hunted almost to the brink of extinction. Since the younger generation finds the owl “cool”, they should come forward in dispelling the superstitions that cause the bird’s cruel death.

Dhiraj Singh is a CEO and author, most recently, of Owl Out: The Trailblazing Journey of Finding All Owls in the Indian Subcontinent in One Year! (Notion Press). A part of the proceeds from this book will go towards the conservation of wildlife.

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