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
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
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
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.