Farmers use owls to kill gophers
Article Date: 2011-03-10 Source: http://naturalresourcereport.com
By Steve Adler
Sloughhouse, California, U.S.A. - Mark Browning of the Pittsburgh Zoo is doing barn owl research in a 100-acre
chardonnay vineyard near Sloughhouse. Vino Farms viticulturalist Chris Storm,
right, said the field being studied has had problems with gophers. While most
people are fast asleep in their beds, barn owls take to the air on their
graveyard-shift patrol of farm fields in search of rodents, primarily pocket
gophers in California's agricultural areas.
The idea of utilizing barn owls for rodent control really took off in Israel in
the 1950s, when farmers there installed owl boxes adjacent to their alfalfa
fields. The concept is slowly catching on in the United States, thanks to
researchers such as Mark Browning of the Pittsburgh Zoo.
Browning is a field researcher who currently has a project at Vino Farms, a
winegrape operation with headquarters in Lodi. Working with Vino Farms
viticulturalist Chris Storm, Browning and a group of University of California,
Davis, students have erected 20 barn owl boxes along the perimeter of a 100-acre
vineyard of young chardonnay grapes near Sloughhouse.
''We surrounded this field on three sides with nesting boxes spread 200 feet
apart,'' Browning said. ''Within two weeks, we had signs of visitation in 19 out
of 20 boxes: dirty claw marks around the entrance holes and the mulch scooted
around. Two of the boxes had occupancy within the first two weeks, and we fully
expect to get a good bit of occupancy this year and hopefully increase each
spring until we get very high occupancy.''
The project is being supported by the Lodi Winegrape Commission and Pacific Gas
& Electric Co., which has provided a $25,000 grant to provide free barn owl
boxes to interested farmers. There are a limited number of free boxes available
and priority is being given to replacing boxes currently installed on power
The barn owl boxes, which were designed by Browning, are lightweight but very
durable, and capable of withstanding adverse weather ranging from bitter cold to
Barn owls readily move into nesting boxes designed by Browning.
Browning shared his ideas with a group of Lodi-area winegrape growers last week
at a meeting at the Lodi Grape Festival Grounds. After hearing his presentation,
those in attendance received vouchers for the owl boxes.
Vino Farms, Storm said, supports research projects such as the one being carried
out by Browning because the projects can benefit everyone, from the farmer to
''The vineyard we are using is certified green through the Lodi Rules program,
so putting up owl boxes and raptor perches made a lot of sense,'' he said.
''This was an ideal spot because we had barn owls already living in our nearby
barn. So we thought this would be a good spot for the barn owls to begin moving
into the field and start taking care of the gopher population that is really out
Browning noted that while the Lodi program involves winegrapes, the barn owl
boxes would be effective in any farming operation - such as alfalfa or
processing tomatoes - that has trouble with gophers.
''In warm weather, a barn owl adult will eat two rodents per night and in cold
weather that increases to three or four per night. The babies eat a high number,
anywhere from one per night when the chicks are just hatched to up to six per
night when the young are about ready to fledge,'' he said.
Browning noted that barn owls can hunt up to two miles from their nest, but that
is extremely rare. They prefer to hunt as close as possible to their nesting box
in order to conserve energy.
Barn owl nesting boxes line three sides of this 100-acre vineyard of chardonnay
winegrapes near Sloughhouse. Owls started moving into the boxes within days of
''Barn owls are really unique; they aren't like very many other raptors and each
of these traits lends barn owls to integrated pest management,'' he said. ''For
one, they tolerate the presence of other barn owls. Most other raptors are very
territorial and they chase each other away all day long. Barn owls won't bother
each other and if indeed the food source goes down, one or more pairs will leave
the area. Second, these birds can be attracted to nesting boxes, which other
raptors won't do.''
Another plus is that barn owls tolerate human activity.
Of all the owl species in the world, barn owls probably have the best hearing,
Browning said, noting that the birds can actually hear gophers chewing on roots
under the ground.
''Researchers have placed barn owls in a completely dark room with leaves on the
ground and the barn owls were able to catch mice moving through the leaves
nearly 100 percent of the time in total darkness,'' he said.
Mike Best, PG&E avian protection program manager, said the utility supported the
research because it provides a good opportunity for farmers to move forward in
implementation of integrated pest management practices. At the same time, the
utility company benefits by having previously-installed owl boxes removed from
''We have been working on this program for a few years,'' Best said. ''This is
very unique and PG&E is one of the only utilities nationwide that is providing a
service like this to growers. We are testing it out here to see how it works and
hopefully we can implement this in other areas of our service territory.''
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