Barn owl a blessing in disguise
[The Namibian -- 7 July 2012]

THE Namibia Animal Rehabilitation, Research and Education Centre (Narrec) has urged the public not to destroy the nests of breeding barn owls, as these creatures serve as perfect pest controllers.

Narrec says any place lucky enough to house a pair of owls should seriously cherish them for the amazing pest control job they do.
Over the past month Narrec received numerous complaints from across the country about noise and mess caused by breeding barn owls at private homes, lodges and government buildings.

In every case Narrec told the complainants to find a way to maintain the breeding barn owls at or around the site.

As the world’s most cosmopolitan owl, many studies have been done providing clear information on the excellent services that barn owls offer as pest control agents. In a single breeding event with just four nestlings, a pair of owls can consume 34 kg of meat from the time the first chick hatches until all chicks have left the nest, approximately 60 days. The parent owls then continue to feed the youngsters for about another 30 days until they are completely independent.

A pair of adults with four chicks catches between 700 and 1 000 rodents over the full nestling and fledgling period. An owl pair can almost immediately start breeding again if there is sufficient prey in the vicinity of the nest.

Because of the known value of barn owls in the environment, projects using them as pest control agents have been set up in numerous countries. A recent success with these owls has been described in Jordan as a rare Middle East truce. In agricultural land, on the border between Jordan and Israel, barn owl breeding boxes were erected and individual birds were ringed for identification. This year a number of boxes have mixed Israeli and Jordanian birds that have paired and are breeding.

The birds are specifically used to keep rodent populations under control in the fields. In the United Kingdom where habitat has been severely compromised and barn owl populations have been decimated, projects to reintroduce these useful birds have been ongoing for over a decade.

Human perception of owls is strangely polarised. On the one hand owls are believed to be harbingers of witchcraft and bad luck, even death, and on the other side, owls are old and wise.

The barn owl has excellent hunting abilities with exceptionally keen hearing and vision. Their eyes are perfectly adapted to night vision but their ears are perhaps the most exceptional organ and the birds can pinpoint and swoop onto a moving object with total accuracy in pitch darkness. Owls only take up residence where there is sufficient food and a secure shelter to roost or breed in.

Owl food is almost exclusively made up of creatures that are deemed pests by people. These creatures include mice, rats, seed-eating birds, locusts and other crop-eating insects. All these pests can cause misery and poverty by damaging or even destroying crops in the field or in the store. Rodents can also carry disease that can have serious consequence for people’s health.

The superstition about owls possibly originated because the owls can be heard while hunting in the dark and the pests are not seen, and it is now the owl that is deemed bad luck as opposed to being the forewarning of problems from pest species in the area.

Liz Komen