Habitat for hooters helps farmers fight pests
May/June 2007 California Country magazine
By Ching Lee
Students construct nesting boxes for raptors as part of the Hungry Owl Project, a program that educates the public about barn owls and their benefits.
Students in Ted Stoeckley's wood shop class at Hall Middle School probably wouldn't give much of a hoot about barn owls if they weren't building homes for them.
The Marin County eighth-graders have been learning about the predatory birds and how they can provide natural pest control services to farmers in exchange for room and board. They've also been constructing nesting boxes for the raptors as part of the Hungry Owl Project, a program that educates the public about barn owls and their benefits.
"Barn owls are the most beneficial of all predators as far as rodent control," said Alex Godbe, program director of the project. Farmers place owl boxes in vineyards, orchards, open fields and other production areas to attract the nocturnal hunters, which have a voracious appetite for gophers, voles and other rodents that are destructive to their crops.
Stoeckley said he got into the owl project because he wanted to do something to connect his students to nature and get them involved in the community.
"I try to find things that we can do to expose the kids to some aspect of how they're helping the environment," he said.
Mark Pasternak, who grows organic winegrapes in Marin County, says the owl boxes definitely help his farm.
"And I was very skeptical. Then I saw the amount of bones under the house," said Pasternak, who has purchased many of his owl boxes from the Hungry Owl Project, which sells boxes for $80 and so far has introduced some 500 of them to the area. "I've noticed a marked decline in gopher activity and gopher damage since I've put in the owl boxes."
But more research is needed to learn about the effectiveness of barn owls in controlling rodent pests. Godbe noted the Hungry Owl Project (www.hungryowl.org) is currently trying to do just that. Since 2003 the program has been monitoring owl boxes in and around Marin County as well as banding the owls to collect data.
Meanwhile, Stoeckley said he hopes to connect his students with a farmer such as Pasternak who has used his students' boxes and benefited from them.
"That would be a neat way to show the importance of owl boxes to the kids," he said.
(Ching Lee is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at email@example.com.)