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How Devils Cry!

Ceylon Hawk Eagle

Dr. R. L. Spittel

"The wings you fly with, may they break and stall,

The feet you perch with, may the same befall,

The throat you wail with, be it stricken dumb,

Ulalena in seven days may you succumb"

Imprecatory verses to silence the Devil Bird (translated from Sinhala)

Retired game ranger Stanley Fernando at the Wilpattu National Park had two experiences of hearing the Devil Bird or 'Ulama' that is known more for its screeh than its physique.

"On the first occasion, I heard it when a nature guide 'Wani Hami' and I went trekking from 'Maradam Maduwa' headquarters of Wilpattu National Park to the Kalivillu branch to get uniforms and other necessities for our colleagues stationed there" he said.

However, they got lost during their 16 mile trek on what they thought was a shortcut and had to spend the night on a tree. "When we were just about to sleep, we heard a shrill screeching sound. It started as a chuckle and then a loud 'Koa' noise ending in a blood-curdling scream" said Stanley, explaining the horrors of the Devil Bird. "I tried not to think about it but it wasn't to be" he said quietly with a poignant look in his eyes.

The next experience of a Devil Bird was when Stanley was stationed in Anuradhapura when his wife was pregnant with their second child. "Working the night shift always made me alert and on such occasion when I came home, I heard the Devil Bird. I woke my wife and told her something bad was about to happen but she just turned on her side and went back to sleep".

Forest Eagle owl

For Stanley that superstition did come true because his wife died during the labour of their second child which was a tragic incident. He said, "People might have superstitious tales about the Devil Bird but I believe that it did happen to me."

Sri Lankan surgeon, anthropologist, wildlife conservationist and author, Dr.R.L.Spittel documents this greatly revered bird in his book 'The Devil Birds of Ceylon' where he analyses what kind of birds are the so-called Devil Birds. Explaining that the Forest-Eagle Owl (Bubo or Huhua nipalensiis blighi Legge) can be the notorious Devil Bird, he goes on to talk about species that fall into that category are the endemic Ceylon Hawk-Eagle, the Mountain or Hodgson's Hawk-Eagle and the Crested Honey-Buzzard.

Douglas Ranasinghe of the Wildlife Nature Protection Society who has translated Spittel's book into Sinhala, has heard the Devil Bird at the Dehiwela Zoo, said, "People like to create fables pertaining to the Devil Bird because of its 'scary' image and high-pitched sound which is supposed to be that of a woman screaming like she was getting strangled". Further he commented, "However, I feel that superstitions have a limit because when the Devil Bird in the zoo shrieks, nothing superstitious happens to the people resident in that area." Douglas said that the best place to hear the Devil Bird is at the Hiyare Rainforest in Galle where the Wildlife Conservation Society does rainforest conservation work and the best place to see it is the Dehiwela Zoo.

Even the famous businessman, philanthropist, adventurer, writer and Olympian Christopher Ondaatje recorded his first experiences of the Devil Bird when he went on a nature trek with his father on Kuttapitiya Tea Estate in Pelmadulla.

According to legend, a jealous husband who suspected his wife of infidelity, murdered and cooked their child and gave it to her to eat. After finding the baby's finger, she went mad with grief and disgust, fleeing into the jungle and killed herself. However, the Gods transformed her into a Devil Bird, which still horrifies the world with that of a banshee.

Mountain Hawk Eagle

With regard to the fable, the Devil Bird's cry has also been likened to the helpless shrieks of a baby being killed, a child being tortured and a wailing child.

Even the Veddahs have created the story which was researched by Dr. Spittel who tells of a similar woman wailing myth but the child whose name was 'Koa' was cooked by the father with the craze of starvation and when the wife knew the truth, she screamed, 'Koa', fled into the forest and died. And now, as the crested ulama, she makes the midnight jungle echo with that wail.

The Ulama is used to describe three aspects of a bird including the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, "ulama" in Sinhalese, a large bird of prey, the Devil Bird which is a Cryptic in Sri Lankan folklore and the Islamic folklore tale of a giant bird.

Whether it is a fable or a myth, the Devil Bird is definitely a bird to be razzled and dazzled with because hardly any birds can have a similar impact on the human race like this revered screaming legend.

Forest Eagle-Owl - It is Sri Lanka's largest owl, dark brown in colour, a nocturnal bird, rarely seen and lives in low and upcountry places.

Well-marked barred ear tufts with deep brown eyes and strong talons. Preying on birds like jungle fowl, the bird's breeding season occurs from April to May. A single white egg is laid without any nest in the hollow of a large tree or at the junction of several boughs from the trunk.

Crested Honey Buzzard

Ceylon Hawk Eagle - Inhabits mainly low and mid country places of the island but is common in the dry zone. Yellow irises, black beak, dark crest and feathered legs. Preys on lizards and rodent and breeding season is early or mid part of the year where a single egg is laid placed at its best on the crown or fork of a tall tree.

Mountain or Hodgson's Hawk-Eagle - Similar to Ceylon Hawk Eagle but inhabits mostly the mountain areas with the breeding season occurring from December to March.

Crested Honey Buzzard - Size of a serpent eagle recognised by lores on side of head, ear coverts, eyelids and chin which unlike hawks are clothed with small close scale-like feathers.

Sleek head and full yellow feet making the honey buzzard similar to a honey comb according to Shelly Crozier.

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