-Your interest in birds starts when you were eleven. You began to develop a special attraction for owls just before starting your higher education. Taking into account your studies related to this group of birds. Bearing in mind that you have written hundreds of articles, that you have published three books and, that you have participated in numerous publications. We would like to understand why are you so interested in owls, in a scientific point of view?
I started 1965 at the University of Oulu, Finland, by studying mainly the food of all Finnish owls but later I expanded my interest in the activity studies of all hole nesting owls by using simple mechanical automatic recording systems (no video systems, yet, that time!). My Master thesis I did 1970 on Great Grey Owl after studying some 250 nests in Finland. My Ph.D. thesis I did 1982 in the University of Kuopio, Finland, on Ecological relationships in European owls. Main question was: Why there are so many or so few owl species in Europe. That led me to look closely the intraquild killings. Some people, including my opponent, did not like to hear that larger owl species are killing the smaller ones. He stated that this kind of research is typical to young Marxist people. Got my doctorate, anyhow.
– It is a fact that these birds cause a certain fascination in a large number of people. They are the subject of legends and superstitions that sometimes imply negative associations. What do you think may be the reason for such connections?
Nocturnal habits and somewhat scary voices. Medicine men in Africa have long used owl body parts for curing but also for killing people. As we all originate from Africa, maybe we inherited these bad beliefs from our Rift Valley ancestors. Nowadays children stories, TV films, movies (Harry Potter, etc.) have made owls very much liked objects. Wise owl syndrome. I have recently seen some American statement that owls are now the most popular animal group in the world.
Photos: Heimo Mikkola. © Anita Mikkola & Asha Mikkola
– There are some serious events involving these birds, namely in India. The report Imperilled Custodians of the Night published in 2010 by Traffic India shows details that may be considered sinister. Have you ever worked in India? Do you have a close insight of this kind of situations?
– I have workwise visited 128 countries of the world but India only two-three times in transit. I must admit that only now I learnt from you about this Abrar Ahmed’s book on dreadful owl faith in India. I copied it from internet. Sound that owls in India are respected even less (if possible) than in Africa. Witchcraft use of owls in Africa is still common but not so organized and commercial as in India. Anyhow, we should all stand against this type of activities. Education is one way to make people to understand better the value of owls in alive rather than dead.
– Taking conservation into account and, bearing in mind your working experience in various countries; what were the most serious situations you had to deal with? Also, who were the most effective countries dealing with those situations?
Internet has obviously been spreading my life-threatening experience in Seychelles. That is the only time my life has been in real danger because of the owls. In Colombia I was many times in life-threatening situations when local people thought that we (FAO test fishing team) were Americans fishing for money. My non-American accent in Spanish saved these situations as well as my stories from Moscow. Rebels wanted to know how life in Russia is.
I have had interesting experience (good and bad) with International Hotels in Africa. In Kenya I wanted to study a Barn Owl nesting in a hotel. The hotel manager decided to climb himself to the attic of the hotel and collect Barn Owl pellets for me. He thought (correctly) that I was too heavy to walk on the roof.
In The Gambia another hotel manager decided to destroy the barn owl nest which I found from the hotel park in a hamerkop’s nest. He felt that the owl would harm the sales of the hotel due to the superstitions, although tens of the hotel visitors had seen the owl with me and were very excited and happy on it. We made later an international appeal against this well-known hotel group but that did not bring the killed owl back into the hotel garden.
This shows how different feelings people may still have on owls.
– You know more than one hundred and twenty countries. Where did you enjoy working the most? Where do you always like to return? Is there a particular species of owls that you prefer? How many species of owls have you observed?
I have not seen more than 120 species myself. I loved a lot Mozambique but because of the civil war (during my time) the birding was not easy and owling during the night absolutely impossible. Colombia was an interesting country but not too easy either due to the drug trafficking and rebel forces living in the best birding areas. I would love to visit Colombia, Ecuador and/or Peru where a lot of new owls have been described after my time in South America.
To me, “by far the most impressive owl” is the Great Grey. “When it slowly turns his or her human size head and looks at you with bright yellow eyes, you are bound to like it. Some small owls are also very attractive, such as Africa’s Southern and Northern White-faced Owls. I kept one at home in Mozambique quite some time and it was definitely the most talkative owl I have ever taken care of!”
– We know that you were almost arrested in the Seychelles because you were to close to a presidential palace during the night, while you were looking for a Seychelles Scops-owl Otus insularis. Can you tell us another curious episode related to your work?
Before Seychelles I was arrested in Finland!! When still young (1971) I was studying one of the most northern Ural Owl nest in Finland which was only a few meters from the Soviet Union border line (that time well known iron curtain). I got a special permit to go to the nest from the border patrols. When I saw the Ural Owl female to fly over the border to Russian side and to drop a large pellet from one of the nearest big trees behind the border, I could not resist the temptation. I was crawling over the border line as low as I could, and collected the pellet and came back to Finland. But Russians spotted me somehow and when walking away from the nest I was arrested by the Finnish Border patrol. Russian colleagues had insisted my arrest. I first took it lightly but when told that I will be taken to Moscow for official hearing – the jokes were over. High level University people were talking with our Ministry of Interior and finally Soviet authorities gave up as for them also this owl pellet story was totally unbelievable. Got a serious warning and lost my permit to move in the border zone.
Owls have served also some hilarious moments when travelling with that Southern White-faced Owl mentioned above. Once, while on duty travel to Swaziland in southern Africa, I put a basket containing a Southern White-faced Owl through an airport security tunnel, along with his hand baggage. The black airport officer went white when he saw the owl passing through the X-ray! He brought the basket to me and asked in all seriousness, ‘are you a diplomat?’ I replied, ‘I am the head of a diplomatic mission’. Upon hearing that, he nodded that everything was OK! I can’t help wondering though what he thought the bones were for, because only the owl’s bones showed up on the monitor! More serious problem became in the plane. Basket was not well closed and suddenly my wife realized that our owl had left the basket. Luckily we soon found it hiding under our seat. One can only imagine what kind of havoc the owl could have caused if starting to fly inside the plane. Most of our African co-travellers would have been sure that they will die because of seeing an owl.
So deep is this death label on owls in Africa that when my successor died to cancer after living a few months after me in the same house in Maputo, his African wife refused to return to that house and was accusing me that the house was haunted because of my owl. For that same reason owls at home served better guards than dogs – nobody dared to enter our house alone due to owls.
– In what projects related to owls are you participating at present? What are your future plans?
I am updating the Owls of the World by adding more that 15 new species into the second edition and correcting all noted mistakes in the book. That new book will be published also as an eBook with as many owl voices as possible. Jim Martin will be in charge of the voices.
I am also studying sexual differences in the diet of Finnish owls with Dr Risto Tornberg. With Jeff Martin we are studying daytime hooting of Tawny Owls in Europe and Scops Owl spread to north and west in Europe.
– When can we get a new and revised edition of the book Owls of Europe?
Totally new “Owls of Europe” is planned for 2014 if I will keep good health until that time.
– Do you consider yourself an owlaholic? If so, can you choose an object from your collection that you find most interesting?
Yes, indeed. We have hundreds of owl paintings, statutes etc. at home. Largest and most interesting maybe those some African artisan sculptors made to me according to my wishes. Some hardwood ones are huge. I have also large wooden owls made with chainsaw in Finland. Could soon start selling part of my collection should somebody be interested.
– What can people do to help owls?
Any positive publicity on owls will help people to get over their negative beliefs and stop them being afraid of owls. Provision of nest sites, boxes, baskets, artificial nests in trees (also on ground for Eagle Owl) can always help housing problems of the owls. The most important would be to protect tropical rainforests which are housing the majority of poorly known species, but how. By buying pieces of forest and not buying any hardwood products, etc.
– Finally, we have read a comment from you in the Internet where you say that the Republic of Gambia was the only place where you have been able to see five different nocturnal birds of prey in one spot and, on the same night. We have had that same privilege here when at night, in 2011, we were able to see a Barn owl Tyto alba, a Short eared-owl Asio flammeus, a Long eared-owl Asio otus, a Tawny owl Strix aluco and, a Little owl Anthene noctua. We must ask: when are you going to visit Portugal?
I was meant to come to Portugal twice already due to some meetings but always some work related timing problems were stopping me. However, now I am retired from the United Nations and have all my time for owls! Last September I went to Italy to participate in the Owl festival (Festival dei Gufi). More than 10 000 people attended – so it was a lifetime experience. Should you organize some meeting or festival, and invite me – I would do the outmost to come and attend your occasion.