In ancient Sanskrit texts owls are called Rudilochana: rudi means heart and lochana means eyes. In other words, eyes are placed on a heart shape thus describing the face of an owl. Another text has owls called Vaktravishtha meaning one who expels pellets which is again true because the owl spits out food that it has not digested.

Live owls and their body-parts like heads, beaks, eyes, nostrils, tongues, hearts, kidneys, livers, lungs, navel parts, skulls, ribs, bones, claws, legs, veins, flesh, fat, blood, tears, feathers, tufts, wings, and even eggshells are clandestinely sold in forest and urban areas of India.

Of the threatened and endangered owl species found in India the three that are in most demand are the rock eagle owl, dusky eagle owl and brown fish owl. They are poached and subjected to unimaginable cruel tantrik rituals involving sorcery and black magic particularly during Diwali. The Baheliya community trap them in areas surrounding Meerut, Pilibhit, Moradabad, Agra, Dehradun and Ambala, as well as in the hills of Uttarakhand and clandestinely sell them.

Poached, Dead or Alive...
Bamboos coated with latex, hanging nets, noose traps, fall traps, snares, tiny spears, catapults and air guns are all utilized to hunt owls.

The most common method of poaching owls is a bamboo stick coated with latex or lhasa which is traditionally prepared by boiling the sap of the peepal tree with mustard oil.

Even though the trapped owls’ feathers get damaged with the sticky bamboos, the value of the birds is unaffected because they are to be killed.

Owls are also caught with the help of bait such as a mouse placed in a cage with its tail or leg tied with a wire. Also, fall traps are used with female owl decoys – not only does the door of the cage collapse but a net falls upon the male owl when it lands on the cage.

Hanging nets capture owls which are similarly lured by teasing other captured and restrained bird species.

Snares are probably worse, and are set near eggs in nests with the aim of trapping adult owls.

Certain tribes are adept at spearing. They use a six-inch pointed needle-like spear called takkva which they throw up fast, hitting the owl. It bleeds to death.

Fledglings are easier to obtain. They are stolen from their nests. Poachers climb trees and literally pick up the little birds with their bare hands or with the help of hooks if they are unable to reach inside. Some times, the chicks are smoked from one side of the nest and caught in a net as soon as they emerge.

However, owls are hardly ever kept as pets because they do not thrive without hunting. No wonder they are called barn owls – they catch and eat rats in barns. Owls are always on the look out to eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings too.

… although Protected

Owls are rampantly poached even though they are protected under The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Except for one listed under Schedule I, all others are under Schedule IV of the Act – 30 owl species of the 32 found in the Indian subcontinent are recorded in India. (There are more than 225 owl species in the world.) Trapping and hunting them is illegal, and trading in owls – live or dead – is also illegal. Moreover, international trade in owls is regulated by CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which restricts the trade in these species.

Both trapping and trading in owls occurs mainly in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. They are also hunted in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand, and sold in West Bengal, Delhi, Bihar and Maharashtra.

In 2007 the Border Security Force seized a large number of barn owls in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal. They were being smuggled into Bangladesh for use in certain medicines. Similarly, there is illegal cross-border trade in owls with Nepal via Uttar Pradesh. In fact, about 15 owl species are poached for some reason of another in India.

Those caught in the Western Ghats and smuggled to North Indian states, Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, can fetch up to Rs 8 lakhs if of the desired ideal size (more than 50 cm in height) and weight (2.5 kgs).

In 2011 a few environmentalists wanted the Forest owlet, Blewitt’s owl or duda to be crowned the state bird of Maharashtra in place of the yellow footed green pigeon or harial. It was because the critically endangered owlet’s habitat continued to either vanish (20% decrease in prime habitat since 2004) or degrade due to encroachment and inappropriate forest management. However, the Maharashtra Board for Wildlife decided against changing the state bird as some experts strongly felt the owlet’s elevation would do more harm than good: a large number of photographers and wildlife enthusiasts would seek out the bird in hitherto unknown forest areas; and if “call replay” is used to spot the birds, adverse physiological and behavioural effects would occur. (Call replay, is a method increasingly used by birdwatchers by playing pre-recorded bird calls in the forest to lure birds. When birds hear the calls, they check out the interloper in their territory. If this is done very often, it obviously leads to adverse behavioural changes, as the birds get confused as to what is a real call and what is not. Rather like crying “wolf” too often.)

In 2013 some wildlife activists were justified in objecting to the permission granted by the Maharashtra Forest Department to the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society to extend and repeat at Melghat in Maharahstra, the research on the forest owlet they were undertaking in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. Trapping birds for banding, especially when only about 400 were left (100 of which were in Melghat according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) was needlessly putting them through stress that would result in changes of their characteristics which in turn would hamper their population growth.

Superstition creates Demand
In some countries owls are associated with misfortune and death, but in parts of India a white owl is considered a companion and vahana (vehicle) of Goddess Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth – and therefore a harbinger of prosperity. Hence, sellers successfully convince the gullible that owls are lucky and by worshiping them they will get wealthy.

Owls are sold mainly during religious melas because that’s where customers are easily found. Owls used for black magic are killed. The sacrifice of nocturnal owls and bats on auspicious occasions, particularly on amavasya of Diwali, seems to be increasing because tantriks are recommending pujas consisting of different body-parts of owls, and state that owls with ear-tuffs (although called ear-tuffs they are actually feather extensions on the head) have greater magical powers! Blood and feathers of owls are offered as aahuti/oblation in Havan Samagri. Tantrik rituals often involve blinding, dismembering and burying owls alive. So-called cures are for overcoming financial difficulties, infertility and absence of a male child, illness, nazar/evil eye and even to develop power over targeted individuals.

Owls are normally sold for Rs 20,000 but cost up to Rs 2 lakhs for sacrifice on the amavasya of Diwali. Tantriks earn between Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakhs because they claim to have the power to capture and transfer the soul of the owl they kill, into a taviz/talisman.

Some people believe that since the owl is the vahana of the goddess of wealth by killing it, the goddess can not leave and will remain in the person’s house forever. As usual many owls were sold at Kabootar Bazaar (opposite the Red Fort) in Old Delhi just before Diwali 2015. Every year they are brought to Delhi from Kanpur, Moradabad, Pilibhit, Lucknow and Nainital.

At Diwali 2016 it was reported that in Agra owls had been home-delivered for sacrifice. They came from places like Korai-Karavili near Fatehpuri Sikri, and Kosi Kalan in Mathura.

Around Diwali 2017 owl sacrifices were reported near the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati. It was stated that poaching and illegal trade in owls gets boosted around this time, especially if the birds are transported outside Assam. In fact, Kabootar Bazaar in Delhi is one of the biggest markets for these birds. It is said that every year atleast 20,000 owls are illegally traded across India.

During Diwali 2018 they were openly sold in the Lal Kurti area of Meerut city.

Every conceivable body-part of the owl is precious for believers, and it is felt that possessing a taviz consisting of owls’ eyes or a particular organ has magical or medicinal powers for the wearer, keeper or user. Superstitions need to give way to respect and protection of owls and that’s why awareness needs to be created.

These humans need to ask themselves whether the owl is really foolish, or whether they themselves are the foolish ones because they believe in superstitions. The internationally felicitated Ela Foundation survey found that 40% Indians associate owls with black magic and consider them to be bad omens. Ulloo is the Hindi word for an owl and when a human is called so, it implies foolishness and stupidity. On the other hand, in the English language the owl is considered a wise old bird; owl-like is a person having a solemn manner; and, a night-owl is one who is active late into the night just like the bird.

It was therefore great to know that a couple who wanted to dispel myths surrounding owls, in 2017 got married with the picture of an owl on their invitations. They wanted their family and friends to realise that although owls are mostly found in graveyards and are nocturnal birds, they should not be associated with death or considered inauspicious.

Owl Motifs
Designs that incorporate owls in them have become fashion statements. Although it began with Harry Potter’s fascination for the white owl, Hedwig, the owl is considered the new “it” bird of 2011. One sees owls on totes, tees and jewelry. It certainly reflects the proper way of drawing luck from owls!
Strange, but True
Certain tribes and communities relish owl meat (fresh and dried) and use owl feathers, bones and claws to make medicines. They also prepare owl-meat dishes in memory of the deceased.

Whereas in Canada some hunters believe that owls are spirits of dead persons and talk to them. But other hunters use owls as target practice in the wild. There too myths surrounding owls are not uncommon like keeping an owl feather in ones bedroom to cure insomnia.

Some madaris who had to give up their bears, have begun training and using owls for street performances. Simultaneously, they peddle “lucky” amulets and taviz for nazar.

Owl eggs, stolen from nests are used in a bizarre way: an egg, covered in black soot is placed overnight under an overturned earthen pot. The next morning, it is closely examined for a visible lucky number which is then used to gamble!

For entertainment in certain small villages, owls are made to fight falcons.

Live owls (that were captured from the wild) are also used as decoy birds to aid capture of other birds in forests. Shockingly, eyes of owlets are sewn for this purpose.

In May 2015 four white owls were found nesting in the neem tree from which Lord Jagannath’s new idol was to be carved. Touching the tree to rescue them was considered sacrilege by the priests so the wildlife administration simply hoped they’d relocate themselves in time.

However, in November 2015 the Pune Police were able to track down and rescue a female owl from a man who had illegally captured her and expected to sell her for Rs 80,000.

Last but not least, owls are trapped, killed and stuffed for sale as zoological specimens for educational institutions and museums, the majority of which are unlicensed to keep specimens.

Ironically, those birds that are confiscated by the authorities are given to zoos – they are not permitted to acquire animals from the wild so happily accept them. In addition to lack of freedom and having to live in captivity, they aren’t even safe. In September 2015 two owlets were missing from the Chatt Bir Zoo in Mohali, near Chandigarh. In June 2016 an owl (one of two kept in a cage) was stolen from the Katraj Zoo at Pune by cutting the iron mesh of the enclosure. (In September 2007 as many as 12 peacocks and a couple of sandalwood trees had also been stolen from this zoo.) In short, the owls keep getting stolen, but no action is taken that would deter stealing for illegal trade, usually black magic.

In November 2018 an Owl Festival organized by a NGO at Pingori village in Purandar taluka of Pune highlighted the fact that both the major causes - superstitions and habitat loss - of owls being threatened were man-made. Illegal trade in owls occurred because of black-magic, street performances, taxidermy, private aviaries or zoos, food, and use in folk medicines.

At the Sixth World Owl Conference in November 2019 at the Savitribai Phule Pune University in association with the NGO Ela Habitat/Foundation, it was stated that 17,000 owls had been killed for black magic in India during 2018. Owl paintings and sculptures were on display at the Second Owl Festival organized at Pingori near Jejuri in December 2019 when awareness was spread regarding owls as being a farmer’s friend and should not be looked upon as taboo or inauspicious according to some myths and superstitious beliefs, be sacrificed for medicinal purposes, or poached by hunters.

Prior to the December 2022 Owl Festival, the Ela Habitat stated that in India approximately 78,000 owls were killed every year during Diwali.

In 2020 a red alert was issued by Uttarkhand which was one of the growing hotbeds for illegal trade in owls. Therefore, in order to stop at least some of the estimated 17,000 owls being poached across India, the Corbett Tiger Reserve gave no Diwali holidays to its field staff who were required to increasing patrolling.

Feathers and Quills
Like feathers of other birds, owl plumage (although to a lesser extent) goes in the making of certain utility, decorative and adornment items. The Nishi/Wancho tribes of Arunachal Pradesh use feathers of owls in their traditional headgear.

Excellent calligraphy pens are available, so there no excuse to use quills made from feathers of owls or any other creatures.
Farmers Love Owls
Owls play an important role in rodent control. They also consume other agricultural pests like birds smaller than themselves, frogs, lizards and insects. One family of hungry barn owls can consume more than 3,000 rodents and small mammals in a nesting season. The importance of owls to agricultural communities has led to the birds being incorporated into the rituals of farmers.
Page last updated on 08/04/24