The owl’s hoot kicked it all off.
It was 5.49 am and it rang out, sonorous, low, loud but not noisy. Mellow. Rather beautiful. Almost bewitching. A thing of the night, heard in the day. Just like Gay Pride, sounding out exactly where it shouldn’t.
This is June, so the season of Pride marches is lighting up so-so diary pages of many souls within the good globe’s silent minority.
The owl was certainly late to bed. Most other creatures were already up – excepting the monkeys that is, who – like languid diplomats – were still reaching for their jungle equivalent of morning croissants and in-bed latte – before deigning to recognise that the day had started.
But started it certainly had. And the owl’s lateness to bed made me feel guilty on its behalf. Had it been to an all-night owl party? Back from the wing version of a long road trip? Insomnia? Nightmares that stopped it risking sleep?
Guilt manages to seep into almost everything. And Owl Pride is clearly this wise rejoinder to this nonsense, night sounding by day. Of course, many Pride events have now become Mega Pride Happenings, planned months ahead like coronations or music festivals with corporate sponsors and ticketed events. You can buy Pride candles, Pride mortgages, Pride bed accessories, Pride cakes, Pride phone condoms, and pretty much anything else so badged. But when the assembled marchers sing Tony Robinson’s legendary anthem “Sing if you’re glad to be gay,” it is really just the chorus that is appreciated, blasted out like “Rule Britannia”. The bitterly ironic other verses about violence, humiliation, and injustice, are washed away, no longer understood today.
It’s an awfully long way from Stonewall, 1969, when the New York gay community just randomly fought back one night after an especially egregious piece of police harassment. Their defiance and courage set off a mighty avalanche. All the Prides worldwide stem from that, and the best are still the most local, in tiny towns and villages rather some borrowed city. In these very local spaces people claim the right to be themselves in exactly their own streets and homes. Not unlike my little jungle owl this morning.
I say little, but it’s quite possible he is tiny and very good at sound projection.
The authoritative International Ornithologists' Union classes 255 birds worldwide as owls of one kind or another. Looked at from this perspective my Sri Lankan owl is a member of a very high achieving club. Sri Lanka has but 0.01% of the world’s land mass yet hosts 0.8% of its endemic owl species.
In a country that has been repeatedly invaded by Cholas, Tamils, Dutch, Portuguese, British – even the Danish at one point - endemic is something of a debating point and the owl world is no less alive to this controversy than the human one. Whilst some Sri Lankans claim there are but two endemic species; others claim it is actually three.
Both camps take great pride in the endemic Sri Lankan Serendib Scops Owl. It is a species new to science since just 2004, and, as a rainforest night roamer, is almost impossible to see.
Its detection was a long drawn out process for Deepal Warakagoda, the Sri Lankan ornithologist, and a pioneer in natural history sound recordings. He first noted its sounds in 1995 - for it emitted the most distinctive quivering notes. It was not until 2001 that he actually saw the creature. “It was just after dawn that the first-ever observations of the species were made, in a flashlight beam, at the Sinharaja rainforest,” he wrote. It took until 2004 before sufficient further research had been done to justify naming the discovery as a totally new species of bird – the first since 1868, when the Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush was described.
The other endemic owl on which there is broad agreement for its endemic-ness, is the Chestnut-backed Owlet , a small stocky fellow barely 8 inches long; but one that is at least more visible for it can be seen often during the day and into the early evening.
But it is over the third owl, the Sri Lanka Bay Owl, that eager taxological arguments rage about its status and endemic-ness – for this owl apparently calls both Kerela and Sri Lanka home. It is something of a beauty. Coming in at around 10 inches in length, with a white feathered body and gorgeous white disc of a face, its eye area is picked out in darker feathers as if it has visited a Beauty Salon specialising in Baroque eye brows and eye lashes. It is more than likely that my Pride owl today was such a one, beautifully if not outrageously dressed, singing away day or night, proud to be an owl.
But it’s just as likely that he was in fact one of the non-endemic species that have passed the challenging Sri Lankan Department of Immigration citizenship tests to become firmly resident in the country.
The Brown Fish Owl, more fondly known as the Brown Boobook, is one of these Resident Aliens. Some 13 inches in length, it is one of the most commonly seen owls, happily urbanised.
But if trying to decide on which owl was mine by its call alone, I might opt for the Brown Wood Owl. This species is large (17 inches in length) and though shy has loud, reverberating hoots. It is a real Owl’s Owl - large serious black eyes set off within a frame of white feathers on darker ones. Cuter, though smaller (10 inches in length) are the Collared Scoups Owl or its cousin, The Indian Scoups Owl. Both come complete with those delightful tell-tale ears or head tufts - like Yoda in Star Wars - that give it the appearance of being able to listen to your every problem
Two last Resident Aliens make up the island’s Owl tally. The Barn Owl, seen everywhere, is more often heard first for it has an ear-shattering shriek that it enjoys drawing out to its fullest extent.
But nothing beats the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl. This massive raptor, some 3 feet in length is the world’s sixth largest owl; and well distributed in Sri Lanka’s forests. Its grey and white markings make it easy to spot and the ledge-shaped tufts that lie horizontally over its eyes gives it a learned and quizzical look. But it is its savage, human-sounding shrieks that has granted it the greatest notoriety, for on the island it is also known as the Devil Bird and its cry is said to portend death.
Neither of these two are likely to have been my little Pride Owl.
As I write, Coco’s six tiny puppies chewing my feet, Bertie barking at the giant squirrels in the Ebony Tree, the Owl has moved on. I like to think of it in its tree hole, feet up, sipping a cocoa laced with whiskey, a trail of glittering clothes strewn across the floor. He is getting ready for bed. He has done his thing. He has hooted when least expected, and claimed his rightful place.