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A Better Mousetrap: Why barn owls might be better pest control than poison 

Let's face it. Man, in his continual struggle to make a living, stay healthy and put a little money in the bank has a hard time of it, and those who decide to make a living as farmers sometimes have it even tougher.

click to enlarge naturalworld_barnowl.jpg

Let's face it. Man, in his continual struggle to make a living, stay healthy and put a little money in the bank has a hard time of it, and those who decide to make a living as farmers sometimes have it even tougher. They often have to put all their eggs into one basket (pun intended), or put another way, create a monoculture, like raising fields of alfalfa hay and nothing else but weeds, for example.

In mid summer, the efforts of all the water, fertilizer and changing pipes at the crack-of-dawn and general TLC to raise a crop of alfalfa are beautifully obvious. However, trouble is brewing because things farmers don't like are attracted to his alfalfa. But not to fear, help is near.

When I'm out banding kestrels, eagles and other raptors, I really enjoy the sight and scent of beautiful fields of alfalfa all green and shimmering in the morning sun as the sprinklers rain down rainbows of life-giving water. But if you're observant, you can't help but notice small piles of soil littering the green fields of alfalfa; those are gopher (or ground squirrel) mounds. A field of irrigated alfalfa is nothing short of heaven to a gopher. Here, that poor guy had been living on bunchgrass and smelly old sagebrush roots when suddenly he bumps into the tasty roots of alfalfa. "What's this?" He thinks, taking a small bite of sweet alfalfa root. Then grinning and drooling, he shouts to his wife and kids, "Hey, guys, look what I found!" In a matter of weeks, gophers encroach on an alfalfa field, and not only does the farmer's yield go down, but also destructive mounds of volcanic soil are left to ruin the cutter-bars of harvesting equipment.

For the farmer, that's usually the last straw. He hastens to Big R, buys himself several pounds of poison and it's goodbye gophers. The problem with that scenario is that it may also be goodbye non-target species as well. Even when the farmer (or his hired man) applies the poison as directed, potential problems for non-target wildlife are there. Every spring and summer, Gary Landers of Wild Wings Raptor Rehabilitation in Sisters picks up red-tailed hawks suffering from secondary poisoning. This is totally unacceptable from Mother Nature's point-of-view and for the farmer, the cost of the time to apply the poison may also be unacceptable. So why not let Mother Nature help out?

That's exactly what many smart farmers are doing throughout Oregon. Klamath growers are doing it, and over in La Grande there's an alfalfa farmer who has surrounded himself with one of the finest gopher and mouse traps ever invented: barn owls. Barn owls consume almost exclusively rodents. Why? Not only are they good at catching and eating them, but they've been at for tens of thousands of years. One family of barn owls, consisting of mom, dad, and five kids, will consume hundreds of pounds of rodents in one nest period!

If you don't believe me, ask the bunch of kids I took out into the Willamette Valley to pick up owl pellets back in the '60s when I was the Naturalist with OMSI. I had the idea that barn owls, because they are the most nocturnal of all owls, would bump into bats and eat them as well as the rodents they gobble up.

For over a week, we toured the Valley - which I also lovingly refer to as "The Swamp" - talking to farmers and obtaining permission to collect barn owl pellets from barns and outbuildings. At the end of the week we had boxes and boxes and boxes of barn owl pellets to inspect.

Well, the students fell to the task of dissecting the thousands of pellets, placing mouse bones, teeth and claws in one pile, bird bones, feathers and beaks in another, and creating another pile for unknown bones. The unknown pile was whittled down by closer examination into quail, house sparrows, gophers, voles, rats, rabbits, domestic cats, skunks, snakes and frogs. Much to my surprise, however, not one bat bone was found.

But weighing the evidence, it was readily apparent that barn owls - all on their own - are capable of eliminating thousands of harmful rodents, all for free. If you are a grass seed or hay farmer, and would like to get help from Mother Nature in your rodent control program, all you gave to do is put up a nesting-box or platform in the top of a tree and as soon as barn owl finds the box, they'll move right in. It'll save a lot of money, too.

If you would like to have free plans for a beautiful barn owl box, send me a 6x9 self-addressed stamped envelope (two stamps, please) and I'll send you the plans.

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