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Gopherbusters? A Review of the Candidacy of Barn Owls as the Ultimate Natural Pest Control Option

  • Author(s): Kross, Sara M.
  • Baldwin, Roger A.
  • et al.
Abstract

While many raptor species consume rodent pests, the behaviors and habits of barn owls make them particularly suitable candidates for consideration as a viable pest control strategy. As a cavity-nesting species, barn owls will readily nest in man-made structures including nest boxes. Barn owls are also less territorial than many other raptor species and will tolerate other pairs nesting nearby if prey is abundant. Barn owls preferentially consume rodents including voles (Microtus spp.) and pocket gophers (Thomomys spp.) in habitats where they occur, but will also switch to more abundant prey so they may be able to sustain populations even if preferred prey numbers fall. These life-history traits allow for people to inflate barn owl populations in target areas, and this has been a factor in the widespread popularity of encouraging barn owls to nest in agricultural areas to provide natural pest control of small nocturnal vertebrate pests. However, the ability of barn owls to control rodent pests has only been formally tested in Malaysian rice and palm oil agriculture, and whether barn owls are capable of controlling rodent pests to economically acceptable levels in areas such as California is as yet unknown. We extracted and combined data from field studies of barn owl nesting behavior and diet in California vineyards to predict that annually, a pair of nesting barn owls and their progeny will consume 97.85 kg of prey. We predicted that an average barn owl nest in a California vineyard will therefore consume 843 pocket gophers, 578 voles, and 1,540 other prey items, most of which are mice. At these values, a barn owl population density of one nest/10 ha may be able to offset the annual productivity of an average population of pocket gophers, but even the highest barn owl densities of one nest/2 ha would be unable to control pocket gopher populations at maximum densities and reproductive rates. While valuable for making initial predictions of the ability of owls to control small rodent pests, our prediction methods are crude, and accurately assessing the capability of barn owls to control rodent pests will require more field data and more sophisticated modeling techniques.

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