The Norman Transcript

May 3, 2013

Silent but deadly — barn owls beneficial


The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Rats, mice and gophers cause damage to homes, businesses, cropland and pastures across Cleveland County. A colony of just 100 rats will consume over one ton of grain per year and contaminate 10 times that amount with their droppings and urine.

USDA estimates the equivalent of $2 billion in U.S. grain is destroyed by rodents annually. Worldwide, rats and mice spread more than 35 diseases, many of which humans can contract. To compound the disease issue rodents have tremendous reproductive potential.

Under ideal situations, a pair of rats and their offspring can produce 20,000,000 young in three years. One rat is capable of producing another 22 breeding females in one year (assuming a 50:50 male/female ratio), which mature in three months.

While these numbers may seem overwhelming, several rodent control alternatives to trapping and poisoning are available, and I’m not referring to cats.

Enter the barn owl. Farmers, ranchers and landowners around the country are reaping the benefits, having successfully enlisted the help of this common ally in their fight against gophers and other rodents. Countless barn owls have taken up residence in wooden nesting boxes on many farms and ranches with the help of conservation-minded landowners.

Farmers and environmentalists don’t usually collaborate, but the common pocket gopher has bridged their differences, having become a costly pest in the last few decades, damaging valuable crops and irrigation lines. The good news for farmers is that gophers rank high on the barn owl’s menu.

Federal scientists have estimated that a family of barn owls can consume up to 3,000 rodents a year. To really get down to the business of pest control, all the owls need is a place to call home. Barn owl boxes are popping up all over the country and are usually erected in trees, in or on barns or atop steel poles 20 feet tall.

The boxes are generally about 2 feet high, 2 feet wide and about 18 inches deep and should face east, if possible. There are many designs and materials to choose from when constructing a nest box.

I work with countless landowners with questions about gopher control on their property.

Like most rodents, gophers teeth never stop growing, thus they gnaw continuously to maintain them. They chew utility and irrigation lines, plant roots, plumbing pipe and virtually anything else they come across. They also leave lawns, pastures, range and cropland bumpy due to the mounds they create.

While there are gopher poisons and traps available, Barn owls are a more elegant (and free) solution. Owls sweep silently through pastures and fields at night, locating rodents by sound when they are not visible. And they have a big appetite. One biologist documented 289 gopher skulls in a single barn owl nesting box.

Barn owls are cavity-nesting birds, meaning they prefer to nest in boxes, tree holes, barn lofts or attics. When struggling with Mother Nature’s pests, why not work with her rather than against her? Erecting a barn owl box may help alleviate your rodent problem in an inexpensive and effective manner.

In addition, barn owls have greater lethality on rodents than cats and inflict far less damage to non-target wildlife species. More information about purchasing or constructing barn owl boxes can be found online. Visit our website for more land and wildlife management ideas at oces.okstate.edu/cleveland/agriculture/wildlife-management-1.

Heath Herje is an agriculture educator with Cleveland County Cooperative Extension service.