Township Owl Box Project
The aim of the Township owl box project is to contribute to the effective management of rodents within the township areas. It is felt that through an intensive education programme, coupled with the installation of suitably placed owl boxes, it will be possible to establish a breeding population of barn owls who live and hunt within townships. This project was motivated by the ever-increasing call by the community for a solution to their overwhelming rodent and rodent related problems.
In order to establish a suitable and sustainable habitat within townships where barn owls would have a greater chance of survival, it was decided that certain criterion needed to be met. A reasonable abundance of food and a responsible rodenticide policy are the main requirements for an optimistic owl box initiative. Due to the education requirements and general acceptance and awareness that this project needs to succeed, schools within Katlehong; Vosloorus and Thokosa were identified as an ideal point of departure.
Schools were chosen for numerous reasons. Firstly, the school grounds offer an excellent potential hunting area for owls because of the food source for rodents kindly provided by the students in the form of crumbs, chips; etc. Increased rodent numbers, in turn, create an environment more conducive for barn owl breeding and occupancy. Secondly, schools are quiet at night and are ideal for owls, young owls fledging from these sites encounter little direct human disturbance during the fledgling period. Thirdly the schools have a captive audience of future nature conservationists who are used to the sight of fledgling owls and come to respect and conserve them. The final factor making schools so desirable for owl box project participation is that a reasonably large area in a densely populated environment can be managed without the use of rodenticides (rat poison).
Education is the most critical component to the success of this project as people need to be aware of how the project works and what its aims are. In some mythologies in Africa and the world, the owl has a dreadful and undeserved reputation and only through education can this be corrected. When the project started a series of meetings were held with local councillors, the Traditional Healers Association, Teachers Training College and the Department of Health, a list of 36 schools was decided upon. To date there are currently over 50 schools in Gauteng that participate in the owl box project, exposing over 83 000 learners to this project.
The aim of the township project is to establish all schools with owl boxes, create owl friendly and aware children, and help nurture an owl-friendly disposition amongst the community. The traditional healers (witchdoctors), local councillors and school children all need to come together to achieve this.
The education programme involves an initial talk to the school children and teachers; in the hope that the children inform and educate neighbours and parents. The construction and installation of the owl box and finally, when prudent, the release of some of the numerous young owls which find their way into rehabilitation centres and zoos around the country, also form part of this programme.
This project has continued support from the Roots and Shoots programme under the auspices of Dr Jane Goodall as well as the Gauteng Department of Agricultural and Rural Development. The project is now being registered as a Non-Profit Company (NPC),totally separate from EcoSolutions PTY, with its own board of directors. Consequently we will be looking for additional support from companies and corporates as part of their CSI programme as well as private individuals.
The release of orphaned barn owls
The owl project is really designed to educate and create owl friendly environments; however we have found that the surrogate parent programme for young owls which find their way into captivity is a great tool for creating awareness and fostering a real appreciation of owls within these areas. Most children within townships have experienced little or no interaction with wildlife and the raising and releasing of baby barn owls has had a wonderful effect on them. Every year we receive roughly 150 baby barn owls which have been handed in at various institutions. These owlets always present a dilemma, as there is nothing wrong with them and they are easily releasable, although finding suitable release sights is always difficult. In the past these youngsters were released in pristine owl environments under the assumption that this is where they would have the best chance of survival.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Pristine environments ideal for owls invariably have resident owls in attendance. These residents are territorial and quickly chase the released owlets away. The young owls invariably die as they are totally unequipped to hunt and fend for themselves. The township project is an ideal vehicle for the release of these orphaned owlets. The school children take on the responsibility of feeding and monitoring these owls during the raising and fledging period. The young owls have very little pressure from wild resident owls and the education of school neighbours significantly reduces the possibility of secondary poisoning through the use of rat poison.
Rodents are a huge problem in townships and the support of the community in seeking a solution has been excellent. The method of release is known as “hacking” and has been used successfully throughout the world. The peregrine fund utilised this method in the release of young peregrine falcons across the United States. After various communications from head teachers and councillors, as well as from the children themselves, we have no doubt that children who have named, raised and released young owlets are destined to be owl friendly adults. A pilot programme on this project has been filmed for National Geographic and various newspaper and television programmes have run stories and articles on it.
The benefit of owls in townships
The Barn owl (tyto alba) has shared an evolutionary route with rodents and is perhaps the very best rodent controller known to man. Barn owls have the ability to regulate their breeding in order to deal with rodent eruptions. This means that in years where rodent numbers are high, Barn owls will produce “super” clutches of young owls in order to fully utilise the high rodent numbers. A family of Barn owls (tyto alba) can consume 2500 rodents per year, and the benefits of this biologically friendly rodent controller are immense as it plays an essential regulatory role in maintaining the health of the very species with which it interacts. Most predators will attempt to catch the easiest individual possible, and the targeting of the sick, weak, young or old rodents controls the spreading of harmful diseases that may affect humans, and most importantly it is an effective substitute for environmentally damaging rodenticides.
The number of young children admitted to South African hospitals annually, having ingested rat poison, is distressing. A healthy owl population is far better at managing a rodent population than any form of rodenticide, as not only are rat poisons potentially fatal to humans, but owls are at risk of ingesting poisoned rats, and becoming poisoned themselves.