Ready to house some local owls

One of Mark Browning’s plastic barn owl boxes at the corner of a cornfield.

This spring, local farmer Bob Friesen began finding puddles in a soybean field that’s watered by underground drip irrigation. Rodents (likely gophers) had chewed holes in the irrigation tubing. After repairing the damage, Brian Wedel from Heartland Irrigation in Moundridge suggested Bob try hanging nest boxes to attract barn owls, screech owls and kestrels to help control rodents, a fairly new concept being tested here in Kansas and all around the country.

Kansas has pocket gophers like courthouses have pigeons, and whether searching for water in dry years or just because gophers like to chew stuff, pocket gophers can wreak havoc with underground irrigation which is very popular of late in irrigated farm country because of its efficiency and water conservation. Heartland Irrigation and Netafim, which manufactures the irrigation tubing used by Heartland, have been working with a Pennsylvania company called Barn Owl Box Company to help drip irrigation customers implement this practice.

While working for the Pittsburgh Zoo as an animal care specialist and trainer, biologist Mark Browning conducted a project attempting to bolster the barn owl population in Pennsylvania. Barn owls were bred and released in western Pennsylvania with limited success. Their focus changed to habitat enhancement instead of a breeding program, and wooden barn owl nesting boxes were erected.  Making nest boxes large enough for barn owls required using plywood instead of weather resistant cedar. The boxes soon began to deteriorate, even to the point of becoming detrimental to attracting owls. Meanwhile, owl nest boxes were attracting owls so successfully in countries like Israel and Malaysia and in the states of Florida and California, that Browning began working to design molded plastic nest boxes that stood up to adverse weather conditions. Today Browning owns and operates Barn Owl Box Company in Pittsburgh, Pa., dedicated to supplying molded plastic nest boxes for barn owls, screech owls, kestrels, bluebirds and wrens, and to providing technical knowledge and support to help people provide nesting opportunities to attract these beneficial birds to their property. Check out his website, www.barnowlbox.com.

While screech owls and kestrels are great help with rodent control, Browning said barn owls are the birds farmers should focus on attracting for a number of reasons. Barn owls are cavity nesters and are easily attracted to nest boxes. They are comfortable around human activity and are not territorial so they can be attracted in large numbers. Barn owls are faithful to their nest sites and return year after year. Common clutch sizes are large, from four to seven chicks or more, and it’s estimated a single family of barn owls can consume over 1,000 gophers or 3,000 mice or moles per year.  Since Barn Owl Box Company’s nest boxes are made from molded plastic, they will last indefinitely. They need only to be on an 8 foot tall pole, and while easterly facing is good for gathering the warm morning sun into the box, Browning assures me they will work just fine facing any direction. Maintenance is minimal; simply put 3 to 4 inches of coarse bark mulch into the box before nesting season and change it each year.  

I spoke at length with Jim Hunt, market segment leader for corn and soybeans with Netafim USA. Hunt said they have been working for years to fix the problem of rodents chewing the tubing. He told me about all the other solutions they have tried, including toxicants, fumigants and repellents, even incorporating a repellent into the plastic itself. All were either unsuccessful or became unusable for one reason or another. They then began working with Browning to distribute and test his owl boxes, and the results have been very promising. One large Kansas farmer, who reported over 100 leaks in his irrigation lines last year, was very pleased to report only around 10 leaks this spring after erecting one of Browning’s barn owl nest boxes last year. Netafim continues to work on solutions to this problem, but “These owls are natural critter control that works 24/7/365 and that makes pretty good sense to me,” Hunt said.

The concept of purposely attracting barn owls for rodent control was a new concept to John Gallagher, superintendent of Dillon Nature Center in Hutchinson. But he agrees it has great merit. “If we are concerned enough to use water-wise watering solutions, then using owls as natural rodent control is wonderful; just be prepared for it to be a long-term solution and not immediate,” Gallagher said. 

I think everyone I spoke with agrees that putting up an owl box today probably won’t have gophers fleeing your fields tomorrow like rats from a sinking ship, but it will certainly put them on notice, and the owls will likely come. I say bring on the owls. Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors.

Steve Gilliland can be contacted by email at stevenrgilliland@gmail.com.

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