By Carey Sweet
The woman on the phone was frantic. She had bought an old farmhouse and discovered a large owl had moved into the attic. At the bottom of its roost was a pile of tiny crushed bones and bits of fur.
Alex Godbe smiles as she recalls telling the new homeowner that she is the luckiest person in the world. There is no better country home accessory than an owl, and in particular, the barn owl breed that is so common in the Marin and Sonoma areas.
As founder and director of the nonprofit Hungry Owl Project in San Anselmo, Godbe offers this advice: Decorate around it.
While she may be joking, Godbe is serious about protecting owl habitats through renovation projects, new construction, vineyard management and any other manner through which humans and Tyto alba pratincola might come into contact. Not only to protect the common barn owl but also to promote their benefits to community and as an important member of a household.
In a four-month breeding cycle, a family of five owls can consume 3,000 rodents. The 1-pound birds are generally shy, and if left alone, live peacefully on farms, ranches, and even in urban areas where there is enough open space for them to hunt. Godbe will recommend that the homeowner let her install a tree- or pole-mounted nesting box on the property to encourage the bird to simply relocate from the attic.
It’s a message that, more and more, is being warmly received. Established in 2001, the Hungry Owl Project now reaches up to 300,000 people each year through its educational programs, social media, owl cameras online and its owl box management program, said executive assistant Joe Fox. More than 1,000 owl boxes have been installed across Marin and Sonoma so far.
While Northern California vineyards, ranches and golf courses have been primary clients for the past decade, recently the program has captured the attention of homeowners associations. The Hungry Owl Project is working with 20 associations in Marin to provide consultations and site checks, then install and supervise nest boxes.
The goal is practical – get rid of rats, mice and gophers.
“But then the owl box becomes a talking point, bringing everyone together in the neighborhood as they enjoy seeing the owls at night on patrol.”
Once past the initial surprise of the owl’s appearance and sometimes alarming vocals, it’s easy to appreciate its beauty. Barn owls are soft, talc gray with fine dark lines that look hand painted, and golden spots scattered on their feathers. Their pale heart-shaped faces and white underbodies have earned them the nickname of “ghost owl.”
“They are majestic animals,” said Mariano Navarro, vineyard manager for Santa Rosa’s Jackson Family Wines, where the Hungry Owl Project maintains 20 boxes over 175 vineyard acres. “At night you can often spot them when they’re flying around. It’s also a thrill to see the babies poking their heads out of the boxes each spring and be able to watch them grow.”
Godbe came up with the idea for the Hungry Owl Project 17 years ago while working as an intern at WildCare. The San Rafael nonprofit cares for about 4,000 ill, orphaned or injured wild animals each year, and also offers environmental education on how to co-exist with everything from squirrels to pelicans.
“I became enamored with owls,” she said. “But birds kept coming in, suffering with secondary poisoning from rodents and pesticides, and I thought there had to be a way to change it.”
Secondary poisoning occurs when animals eat a contaminated rodent carcass and ingest the toxic chemicals. Victims include coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, foxes, raccoons, skunks, herons, opossums, nearly all raptors, and household pets like dogs and cats.
(A test by WildCare early this year found that 78.6 percent of its patients were positive for one or more kinds of rodenticides.)
To compound matters, the habitat for barn owls keeps shrinking as farming and rural areas are developed into high-density urban neighborhoods.
With WildCare on board as a fiscal sponsor, Godbe began her research and started building nesting boxes in her backyard.
To spread the word, Godbe rallies her 30-some volunteers and leads educational workshops.
For anyone interested in installing an owl box, volunteers will visit the site to check for proper habitat and to make sure no one is using poisons in the area. They’ll also interview neighbors because owls can be noisy and hunt in a 1- to 4-mile range from the box.
The Hungry Owl Project sells assembled boxes or will provide the plans so people can build their own, and also provides instructions for mounting and maintaining the boxes.
Sonoma Raceway at Sears Point was one of Godbe’s first clients. According to facilities Vice President Jere Starks, the 1,500-acre motorsports complex was being ravaged by gophers and moles a decade ago. “Our hills were alive with the sound of rodents,” he said. Godbe’s group installed 20 owl boxes, and since then the rodents are rarely seen. The owls have caused no conflict with race operations either.
“Actually, we don’t see much of the owls,” Starks said. “We work days, they work nights.”
How you can help owls
Never use poison; traps are a safer and a more humane option.
Vet your pest control company to ensure it is not using poison.
Call the Hungry Owl Project if you see an owl or bird in distress; don’t attempt to handle it yourself.
Donations are welcome, in money, materials and temporary nests like wicker baskets.
Hungry Owl Project: www.hungryowl.org.
Carey Sweet is a North Bay freelance writer. E-mail: [email protected]