LOST AND FOUND
BY TIM GALLAGHER
Late last year, three Americans rediscovered the Forest Owlet--an Indian mystery bird that hadn't been spotted since 1884This past November, Pamela Rasmussen of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., did something that countless ornithologists and birders have only dreamed about. She and two colleagues rediscovered a species of bird that hadn't been positively sighted for 113 years. Called the Forest Owlet (Athene blewitti), this nine-inch-long raptor is known only from seven specimens collected in India in the 19th century. The last confirmed record--a specimen now in Britain's Natural History Museum--was collected in 1884.
Until recently, the best illustration of the Forest Owlet was the one at right, which appeared in The Scientific Results of the Second Yarkard Mission, published in 1891. the illustration has several inaccuracies: the cheek patches are too dark and the breast is too barred; the belly, lower flanks, and undertail coverts should be completely white, not marked; the bands in the wing should be whiter; and the bill should be larger.
How this rediscovery came about is a fascinating story, involving theft, fraud, and international espionage. In the course of working on a field guide to the birds of the Indian subcontinent, ornithologist Rasmussen became aware of irregularities in the records of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, a World War I British spy and colorful character who early in this century owned what was generally considered to be the finest private collection of Old World birds in existence. Through painstaking research, she and her colleague, Nigel J. Collar of Birdlife International, were able to show that Meinertzhagen's specimen of a Forest Owlet--which he had supposedly collected in 1914, was a fraud and had been taken from an existing 19th-century collection.
Looking at the Meinertzhagen case stimulated Rasmussen and Collar to reevaluate the entire known record of the species. In so doing, they found that of the four known records of the bird in the 20th century, one--Meinertzhagen's--was fraudulent; two of them, which were supposedly supported by photographs, were actually Spotted Owlets (Athene brama), a common Indian species; and the fourth was an unsupported and doubtful sighting.As she looked more closely at the few specimens of the Forest Owlet available and at a set of the bird's bones, Rasmussen was shocked to find that the bird differed markedly from the Spotted Owlet, which many people had thought to be similar or perhaps even the same species. "It was so different that we feel it probably deserves to be in a separate genus," she says. "Normally in closely related birds you don't find any osteological differences--usually they're almost indistinguishable. But these bones were so different, I could hardly believe it."
Some ornithologists had considered the bird to be virtually identical in appearance to the Spotted Owlet and thought that to identify it you would have to look at its habitat. "However, we studied all seven specimens," says Rasmussen, "and in so doing found that there were quite a few differences between the plumages of these two species that hadn't been made clear in the literature."
Rasmussen also found that the scientific literature on the bird's distribution had been misleading. It was said to be distributed across the Indian subcontinent, when in fact it had only been found in four locations--two on the eastern side of the subcontinent and two on the western side. No records existed for the vast area in between. It also turned out that scientists had previously thought that the species must occur in hill forest, but in fact all of the specimens had actually been collected in lowland forests or valley forests along river systems. A number of searches for the birds had taken place over the years, but the researchers had apparently been looking for the birds in the wrong places. "They were not very close to any of the places where the bird had ever been collected," says Rasmussen. "So, I thought, there's still hope of finding it."
When Ben King of the American Museum of Natural History--a well-known expert on Asian birds and probably the expert on Asian owls said that he could go to India to look for the bird in November 1997, Rasmussen couldn't pass up the chance to search for the bird with him. Together with Virginia birder David Abbott, the three traveled to India and spent 10 full days scouring the two eastern sites. No luck. It took two-and-one-half days of driving to cross to the western areas, which seemed less promising because of their relative proximity to Bombay, one of the most populous cities in India. And then they found out that all of the plains forest they wanted to explore had been cleared long ago. They began checking some forested areas in the foothills.
At 8:30 one morning, as the tropical sun rose into the sky, beating down on the area and raising the temperature considerably, Rasmussen stopped to take a drink from her water bottle. Suddenly, Ben King stopped and, almost in a whisper, said "Look at that owlet."
"I looked up and dropped my water bottle," says Rasmussen. "My voice got high and squeaky, and I said: 'It doesn't have any spots on the crown and mantle!' At that moment we all knew, but we were afraid to believe it. You don't want to be wrong about something like that. Anyway, a few seconds later, Ben said: 'It's blewitti.' My instant reaction was, this thing is going to fly, and I'm not going to be able to verify it, and I'm never going to be able to convince myself or anyone else completely that it was a Forest Owlet.' "
But Rasmussen and Abbott began videotaping the bird as quickly as they could and, as it turned out, the bird was extremely cooperative, staying in place for half an hour before another bird, an Indian Roller, chased it away. They returned in the evening and didn't hear the owlet calling, but the next morning they found another Forest Owlet--probably the first bird's mate--in the same location.
Rasmussen wonders how it could be that this species had been overlooked for more than a century. "A tame, distinctive-looking bird sitting out in the open in the middle of the morning? How could they have gone unseen for so long?" she says. "They must be rare, and they must be local."
Rasmussen is currently trying to arrange a joint research project on the Forest Owlet with the Bombay Natural History Society. "There's a lot to be learned about this bird," she says. "We saw two. That only means that they're not extinct. There are probably populations of them, we just don't know . . . nobody knows. It's really urgent that survey work be done to find out how many there are, where they occur, and what their habitat needs are."
So, are there any other Indian mystery birds out there waiting to be found? Yes. The Pink-headed Duck and the Himalayan Mountain Quail have not been seen for decades and, like the Forest Owlet before its rediscovery, many people believe that these species are extinct--but there is no proof.
Dave Ross is a sound engineer at the Lab's Library of Natural Sounds.
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