Where the tropical owls are: reserve status and habitat variables explain the distribution of owls in the mosaic landscape of Garo Hills, north-eastern India.
North-east India, a part of the Indo-Burma region and one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, faces several biodiversity issues including shorter fallow periods between jhum cycles which gives lesser time for forests to recoup, encroachment, and logging, leading to widespread habitat loss and degradation. With slash-burn agriculture also being practiced in many parts of the north-east, Community Reserves that largely make up the Protected Area network could likely act as refugia for several species. Our study explored how owls use these Reserves in the Garo Hills in Meghalaya. Using the alternate grid sampling method, we conducted three temporal replicates in thirty-three 500 x 500 m grids between January and March, 2020. Ecologically relevant site and sampling covariates were quantified in each grid along with owl counts. Occupancy and N-mixture models revealed that wind speed, temperature, humidity and survey start time were the sampling covariates that had the most effect on detection probability of owls, while occupancy and abundance were most influenced by slope, distance to water body, disturbance and tree structural characteristics (GBH and tree height heterogeneity). We also found that the Brown Wood Owl, an old-growth forest specialist was detected much higher inside Community Reserves. With these findings, the study highlights the importance of preserving water bodies and old-growth forests in the Community Reserves in the Garo Hills landscape, that seem to be acting as refugia for the Brown Wood Owl, a species thought to be currently in decline.