Scattered in agricultural fields from the Golan Heights to the Western Negev is prime real estate – not for people but for barn owls. These 5,000 little white houses erected on stands, called nesting boxes, have made Israel the leader in using barn owls as a natural, biological prevention against small rodents that harm agriculture. Israel’s free housing for barn owls now gives the country the densest owl population in the world.
More importantly, the National Barn Owl Project, funded by the Ministry of Agriculture in conjunction with Tel Aviv University, has reduced the amount of toxic rodent poison used in the agricultural sector.
“The owls hunt rodents and that means less poison is needed, said Yoav Motro, manager of the vertebrate department of the Ministry of Agriculture. “That makes farmers very happy.” The project has also decreased the number of barn owls dying from eating rat poison.
In 1982, ornithology professor Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University, co-coordinator of the project, hypothesized that barn owls — which can hunt up to 6,000 rodents during nesting season – would be able to help farmers control the rodent population, replacing poisons.
Leshem joined forces with Shaul Aviel, an ornithologist and organic farmer in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, now 80 and still researching and working with barn owls. Aviel, who was unavailable for comment, has been “the heart of this project” according to Motro and others in the field.
“Aviel believed in this idea from the very beginning when it wasn’t even popular,” he said. “You need someone with passion for everything you do and Aviel has always had passion.”
Barn owls got their name because they nest in barns and hunt in fields. Israel provides the fields, but since there are few traditional barns in the country, the Department of Agriculture provides the nesting boxes.
“We build their nests the way they want them and we put them where we want them,” explained Motro. Of the current number of boxes around the country, half are occupied. If they were all occupied, he said, there would be the need for more boxes.
This year, after the winter’s bountiful rain, national manager of the Barn Owl Project Itai Bloch said the ample vegetation will lead to more rodents and therefore more barn owls. The owls usually return to the same nesting boxes each year. Unlike other birds, they don’t migrate away, but during the cold season, they are not active hunters.
The project’s field workers track the owls with leg bands, recording each bird’s age and weight. Through years of trial and error, the researchers now know what the owls hunt and where they go.
“When you’re a leader in any field,” said Motro, “you have nobody to learn from. You have to teach yourself. You always need research and development.”
Barn owls are medium-sized birds, averaging 36 cm. in length. Their acute ears, protected by feathers, are placed at slightly different heights to help calculate the sounds that rodents make.
Barn owls silently swoop down on their prey from a height of three meters. They are monogamous, and faithfully return to the same nesting box each year to meet up with their partner again.
Barn owls can live up to 10 years. Last week, Bloch said that Israeli researchers spotted a barn owl that is 18 years old, making it one of the oldest owls alive in the wild.
Typically breeding once a year, barn owls might have a brood of 13 chicks. Field worker Shlomo Cain, who grew up in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu and considers Aviel his mentor, said barn owls are blind at birth. Unlike other birds, such as chickens, that can peck around and search for food, barn owls rely on their mother’s care for the first eight to 10 weeks until their wings develop properly.
A barn owl might fly up to seven km. from its nesting box to hunt, typically hunting approximately 2,000 to 6,000 rodents every season. They continue to bring food to their chicks even after they have lost interest in eating, making them similar, said field worker Cain, to a stereotypical Jewish mother.
The Barn Owl Project works with experts around the world, including the Palestinian Authority. Last year, experts from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Israel gathered in Jordan to discuss barn owls. At that conference, it was noted that some farmers were hesitant to use barn owls since they are white, and that is sometimes considered an ill omen.
Asked if that was true, Motro replied, “I’m not a specialist in bad omens.”
“Since we started working with the Barn Owl Project, we have definitely decreased our use of rodent poison,” stated Nimrod Wolf, manager of 800 dunams of avocados grown for export and local use in Shavei Zion in the Western Galilee. “This fact is good for our children, animals, all of us, and the earth itself.”
Researchers said that a common rodent poison, Compound 1080, which has been banned in the United States, is still applied by some farmers in Israel, but its usage has been cut in half since the Barn Owl Project began.
“Of all the projects I’ve worked with,” said Motro, “This is the one I’m proud of the most.”
The writer is a journalist and National Jewish Book Award nominee whose most recent book is A Remarkable Kindness. To read more of her work, go to www.dianabletter.com
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