Barn Owl boxes – nature’s own pest control
As I drive up and down the Sonoma Valley, I am noticing more and more Barn Owl boxes on properties. This is a good thing! How much nicer it is to have our native wildlife control the mice, rats, and gophers than it is to use nasty pesticides and rodenticides to do the job.
Owls, by nature, do not build nests. Great Horned Owls will take over the nests of other raptors, and refurbish them a bit, but that is as far as it goes. Barn Owls, as the name might imply, often nest near human habitation. Barn Owls are “cavity nesters,” nesting in the cavity of trees, in caves, in attics, and in barns. They are beautiful birds with a white, heart-shaped face and white chest with small brown dots. What with the loss of habitat due to encroachment of humans, it’s not always easy to find a cavity. Cavity nesting owls are the ones that are attracted to owl boxes.
As with most birds, Barn Owls nest only when they are raising their young. Barn Owls are monogamous and will mate for life. They can breed year round. They typically have five to seven eggs, which the female incubates for four to five weeks. The male feeds her during this time, as well as when she is brooding the chicks. She breaks the food down into small pieces for her chicks. Barn Owl chicks are ready to leave the nest when they are seven to eight weeks old. Then, after spending a few weeks with their parents supporting them, they are on their own.
Barn Owls are good neighbors. They snooze quietly all day, and silently hunt at night. Barn Owls will eat 1,000 rodents a year. You can see that having a family of Barn Owls living on your property provides an environmentally friendly pest control service. Having more than one box is even better and that is why you’ll see several in vineyards and on ranches.
Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue (SCWR) has their own Barn Owl Maintenance Program. According to Doris Duncan, the executive director, it’s absolutely critical to get the placement of these boxes right. If the owls don’t like where the box is, they won’t use it.
SCWR will consult with you about Barn Owl boxes. Their services include box installation, inspection and cleaning, and research. Their prices are very reasonable and every dime they makes goes right back into supporting their organization.
Raptors are often amenable to raising orphans of their own species. For many years now, when an orphan comes in to a wildlife rescue facility, wildlife rehabilitators have networked with birders, knowledgeable tree services, and other wildlife rescue centers to see if someone knows of a nest in the area. It’s so much better for orphaned wildlife to be raised by their own kind. When orphans come in to SCWR, the first hope is that they can be re-united with their own parents. This isn’t always possible, so the next hope is that an active nest with chicks about the same age can be located. Fortunately, mother Barn Owls don’t seem to mind having additional chicks in their nests, and will raise the orphans as their own. This is called “wild-fostering.” This is also what we call a win-win!
Any orphaned Barn Owls that come into Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue will have a head start in finding a nice adoptive family to take them in. SCWR will know where nesting boxes are located and the approximate age of the chicks. They have all the permits required to do this kind of work. They also have the know-how.
If you or your neighbors are using pesticides or rodenticides (rat poisons) to control rodents, best not put up an owl box, until all the poisons have been removed. Then wait until three months have gone by. The problem of our wildlife getting secondary poisoning from rat poisons is severe. A rodent will eat the rodenticide, but take several days to die. In the meantime it is outside, sluggish, and is easy prey for predators, be they mammals, raptors or pets. Those toxins build up in the predators and eventually kill them. What a waste of a beautiful animal that is helping keep the environment clean.
For more information about owl boxes, contact Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue at 992-0274, or check out their website, www.scwildliferescue.org/Owl_Box_Maintenance.
Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.