The Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata) is a species of large owl found in India. They are typically found in gardens and thin deciduous forests adjacent to dry thorn forests or farmland. They are easily detected by their distinctive tremulous, eerie calls at dawn and dusk. The characteristic call is a duet of the male and female, while other notes include a low hoot and a screech. Their large size, lack of “ear” tufts, and concentric barring on the face make them easy to identify.
This large owl lacks ear tufts and is mottled and vermiculated in reddish-brown and white. The face disc is marked with fine concentric black and white barring. The sexes are alike, and the chin is white. The eyelid is orange, and the iris is dark brown. The tail is narrowly barred in brown and black. The concentric barring on the face and mottled crown separate it from the Brown Wood Owl in southern India.
There are three recognized subspecies, and their distributions do not have sharp demarcations:
- S. o. ocellata (Lesson, 1839) is found in southern India and has shorter wings in males (333–338 mm) than grandis.
- S. o. grisescens Koelz, 1950 is found in northern India south of the Himalayas, west to Pakistan, and east to Bihar. The markings are pale above, and the males have a wing length of 338–346 mm.
- S. o. grandis Koelz, 1950 from Gujarat is differentiated by the longer wing length in males (360–372 mm).
Distribution and Habitat
The species is found in the plains in gardens and lightly wooded habitats. They roost in trees during the day, choosing a branch with dense foliage. An old specimen from Lahore is noted, but there have been no recent records from Pakistan. The distribution extends east to West Bengal.
Behaviour and Ecology
These owls roost during the day, usually in pairs. When disturbed, they may fly in bright sunshine, although they choose to shelter within a dense grove of trees. They produce an eerie chuhua-aa call with a quaver in the second note. This call is an antiphonal duet of the male and female. The male calls one or two times, followed by the female’s shorter and less tremulous version. The calling is more frequent in November when they begin to breed. Most nests are found from February to April. They also produce a single-note hoot and a screech not unlike that of the Barn Owl. The nest is a tree hollow in which two to three white eggs are laid. They feed on palm squirrels, mice, and other small mammals.
The eerie call has been associated with ill omens in some parts of Kerala. The call is interpreted as povaa-aa (“let us go”) in Malayalam and is likened to a summon to the spirit world. The species is also called kalan-kozhi (“fowl of death”) in Malayalam, owing to its behavior.