The screech of a barn owl at night may be startling or annoying to some. But others may find their harsh calls satisfying, knowing that barn owls are out, feeding on pesky rodents.
They're fierce hunters with a voracious appetite for mice, voles, gophers, and rats. A family of five barn owls, including two adults and three young will feed on about 1,000 rodents during a season. When they nest twice in a year, that number doubles and you wind up with some good help on rodent control that's safe and free.
So, the next time you hear that eerie, rasping sound at night, don't panic. Instead, think about all the good the owls are doing. Even better, invite a family of barn owls to your property by building a nest box for them and creating a home.
Identifying barn owls. If you're lucky to spot one in an old barn where they're often found (hence their name), they have iconic white heart-shaped faces, white chests, and tan-colored backs with spots. Barn owls are nocturnal and can be recognized by their drawn-out rasping screech. Unlike other owls, they don't hoot. They often shriek when they leave their roost to hunt and make hissing and snapping sounds when startled.
Barn owls have excellent vision and hearing for finding prey in the dark and capturing it with their sharp talons and beaks. They're quiet hunters, flying close to their prey without being heard, due to specialized feathers, making them incredibly good predators. Barn owls are found world-wide and occupy a wide range of habitats, including natural, agricultural, and urban areas, but prefer to hunt in more open areas as opposed to forests. They readily hunt rodent pests in grape vineyards, alfalfa fields, and along levees, making them valuable allies for farmers.
How do you attract barn owls? Barn owls are cavity nesters, including cliffs, trees, and buildings such as barns, so they will readily use nest boxes. Plans for how to build nest boxes can be found in the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) booklet, Songbird, bat, and owl boxes. This handy guide also shows how to attract insectivorous birds and bats to help control insect pests naturally. Barn owl boxes and plans can be found online or through local sources, such as G. Rohman (photographer). Barn owls begin nesting in February, so now is the time to put up a house before males and females select nest sites. Boxes should be mounted 10 feet off the ground on metal poles to prevent mammal predators from accessing the boxes and feeding on eggs or chicks.
Paint the boxes white to keep them cooler and help prevent weathering and face them northeast. Add some timothy hay for bedding (often sold in small bags in stores for rabbit feed). Wooden nest boxes are generally preferred over plastic ones. Fifty gallon drums can also be used; just remove the top, retaining a lip so the chicks don't fall out, add some hay, and hoist it up on a rafter in a barn and secure it well with a chain. Avoid disturbing nest boxes during the breeding season (February through August), as barn owls will often abandon nests if disturbed while nesting.
Who moves into the nest box? A family of barn owls. Females generally lay four to seven eggs from February to April, which hatch in about 30 days. While they incubate the eggs, the males bring food to the nest. The baby owls fledge in about 10 weeks, but stay around the nest until fall, when they wander off, usually within 30 miles of where they were born. Sometimes a second clutch of eggs is laid in May. Barn owls do not migrate, so tend to stay in an area year-round and will reoccupy a nest box the following year. They generally forage about one to three miles from their roosts. They are only mildly territorial in that they will defend their nests if you get too close. This means that you can put up several nest boxes in an area and expect occupancy from several families. Barn owls generally only live for about two years. Great horned owls are the fiercest predator of adult barn owls (and collisions with cars).
What are they eating? The favored prey of barn owls is rodents, including voles and gophers. Like other owls, they often swallow their prey whole and then undigested bones and fur are coughed up (regurgitated) as owl pellets. These pellets can be dissected and prey readily identified by the skeletons left behind. Farmers appreciate owls and other raptors because they feed on rodents that can damage their crops and irrigation systems (Wildlife Survey).
UC ANR researchers, including Roger Baldwin, UC Cooperative Extension vertebrate pest control specialist, are currently evaluating the economic impact of barn owls for rodent control in agricultural lands. It is important to note that rodents reproduce rapidly so barn owls cannot always keep up with rodent outbreaks and other methods of control might be needed to prevent crop damage (Rodent Control). But, every rodent a barn owl takes is one less we have to deal with!
How about maintenance? Barn owl boxes need to be cared for and cleaned once a year during fall or winter (October to December) as the pellets can quickly fill up a nest box. Doors for accessing the inside of the boxes need to be secured, hinges lubricated, and mounting structures checked during annual inspections. Avoid breathing unhealthy dust when cleaning the house and always make sure no one is home. Although this takes time, the pellets cleaned out might have added value. A Yolo County farmer mentioned he has a buyer for his pellets, which are used for science projects where students dissect them to learn about skeletons and barn owl diets. He read his recent owl pellet invoice noting, “The pellets are graded from small at 10 cents each to premium at 20 cents each and I sold over 100. Barn owls are great!”
Recent surveys in the North Coast have found that 90 percent of the powdery mildew samples collected were resistant to strobulurin fungicides, the director of UC Integrated Pest Management Program told legislators at a joint hearing of the California Assembly and Senate Select Committees on California's Wine Industry. A potential solution is breeding winegrapes to be resistant to powdery mildew, but a drawback is that the wine industry is largely known for its varietals.
“Professor Andy Walker at UC Davis has succeeded in crossing winegrapes with a wild grape species that is naturally resistant to powdery mildew and then crossing the offspring back to the parent winegrape variety for several generations,” said James Farrar, who was invited to speak at the committees' informational hearing on “Fire Recovery and Pest Management Awareness” at UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 7.
Farrar warned the legislators of increased human health risks due to “unintended consequences of social pressure” on the herbicide glyphosate, which growers use to control weeds under grapevines rather than tilling the soil, to comply with Natural Resources Conservation Service and Salmon Safe guidelines.
“Recent social pressure resulting from the International Agency for Research on Cancer labeling glyphosate a probable human carcinogen and news stories indicating detection of glyphosate in wine have caused some growers to look at other herbicides,” Farrar said. “The other choices are glufosinate, which is more risky to applicators, less effective, and more expensive, and paraquat, which has similar price and effectiveness, but much greater risk to applicators. Paraquat is a restricted-use pesticide that is highly toxic to humans – 3 teaspoons will kill an adult. It has a higher risk ‘Danger' label in contrast to the lower risk ‘Caution' label for glyphosate.
“This is an increased risk to human health as a result of misplaced public perception of risk.”
Farrar closed his comments by saying, “The County Agricultural Commissioners and county-based University of California Cooperative Extension advisors are vital in the continued efforts to manage winegrape pests and diseases. They are the frontline support for growers and pest control advisers in this effort.”
Workshops will be held in Davis, San Diego and Santa Rosa.
“California has the largest number of farmer veterans in the country, with over 1,000,” said Michael O'Gorman, executive director of Farmer Veteran Coalition, which supports military veterans with the resources they need to launch successful farm businesses. “Pastured poultry operations are a growing and profitable sector of California agriculture, and FVC is excited to partner with the University of California to provide trainings on this burgeoning field!”
A four-day workshop covering several aspects of pasture-poultry production will be held Dec. 4-7, 2017, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., at UC Davis.
“In addition to the more traditional topics such as flock husbandry, biosecurity, food safety, nutrition or equipment needed, we will discuss records management, marketing options and using mobile apps to capture better data,” said Maurice Pitesky, UC Cooperative Extension poultry specialist in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, who is organizing the workshops.
The poultry workshops will take a participatory learning approach, rotating between presentations, scenario discussions, Q & A sessions and hands-on demonstrations.
During the demonstrations, beginning farmers will have a chance to perform health and welfare assessments of laying hens, on-site Salmonella enteritidis testing, egg candling and safe handling.
Speakers and facilitators will be experts from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, California Department of Food and Agriculture and UC Cooperative Extension.
Each day will include 90 minutes of networking opportunities with other beginning farmers. The registration fee is $80 and includes lunch. To register, visit http://ucanr.edu/newpoultryfarmer.
Beginning farmers will gain insightful information on successfully raising poultry flocks on pasture, as well as practical expertise, connections with other farmers and professionals in the field, and better awareness and knowledge of resources and opportunities available.
One-day workshops are being planned for Jan. 17, 2018, in San Diego, May 16 in Santa Rosa and Aug. 8 in Davis. More information will be available at http://ucanr.edu/newpoultryfarmer.
To better communicate with backyard poultry enthusiasts and to protect flocks from disease outbreaks, people who raise backyard poultry are encouraged to participate in a voluntary survey for the UCCE California Poultry Census at http://ucanr.edu/sites/poultry/California_Poultry_Census. If there is an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza, for example, UCCE will notify participants by email and warn them to keep their birds indoors.
Pastured Poultry Farm website http://ucanr.edu/sites/poultry/UC_Davis_Pasture_Poultry_and_Innovation_Farm
California Poultry Census survey http://ucanr.edu/sites/poultry/California_Poultry_Census
UC Food Observer's Q & A with Maurice Pitesky http://ucfoodobserver.com/2016/04/14/california-poultry-update
According to current statistics, approximately 40 percent of school-age children in the U.S. are overweight or obese. This statistic is reflected in rising rates of diabetes, pre-diabetes, and heart disease risk factors. Nearly one-quarter of all children are pre-diabetic or diabetic at the time when they leave high school, a figure that has increased dramatically in the last decade. Dental problems, the other very common health problem of youth, carry the potential for current and future pain, infection, and tooth loss. Although low-income children and children of color are at particular risk for both conditions, risk is unacceptably high for all children.
It is important to note that these all-too-common conditions share the same critical risk factor: consumption of sugary foods and beverages. Unknown to many, over half of the added sugar consumed by children is ingested in liquid form—soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and other pre-sweetened beverages including iced teas and others. For teenagers sugar-sweetened beverages are the single largest source of calories in their daily diet. Further, research has demonstrated that liquid sugar is more highly related to obesity than added sugar coming in solid form.
To improve the medical and dental health of our children we need to help children and families find ways to reduce their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
Fortunately research is being conducted to find effective ways to reduce children's sweetened beverage consumption.
- Reduce provision of sweetened beverages in the school, after school and childcare settings. UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI) has documented dramatic reductions in sugary beverage consumption after the enactment of state restrictions on the sale of highly sugared beverages in California schools and childcare. While much has been accomplished, more can be done to see that these kinds of restrictions are fully maintained.
- Offering children easy access to water stations and other free tap water sources in childcare settings, schools and recreational facilities provides a healthful alternative to sugary beverages.
- Encourage strong nutrition education programs for children. UC Cooperative Extension's EFNEP and statewide SNAP-Ed programs have been leading efforts to educate children on the value of a healthy diet including the risk of consuming too many sugary beverages.
- Similarly, educating families on healthy eating and on the benefits of reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption can support and reinforce the messages to children in the school-based programs.
A consistent message on sugary beverages delivered to families by dental and medical health practitioners, in tandem with other educational and community efforts, can substantially benefit children's health. As respected community members, dental and medical health practitioners are in a position to deliver consistent messages to families and also to work with community agencies and groups, including UC ANR and its affiliates, to initiate and support efforts to reduce children's and families' sugary beverage consumption. Our children deserve a healthy start.
For more information, see:
- Nutrition Policy Institute (http://npi.ucanr.edu)
- National Drinking Water Alliance (http://www.drinkingwateralliance.org/about)
- Dooley D, Moultrie N, Sites E, Crawford P. Primary care interventions to reduce childhood obesity and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption: Food for thought for oral health professionals. Journal of Public Health Dentistry, 16 June 2017. DOI:10.1111/jphd.12229.
Not more than three months on the job and Konrad Mathesius is hard at work bringing farmers together to discuss the unique challenges that Sacramento Valley farmers face. As the new UCCE agronomy advisor for Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, his role is designed specifically to help growers with their crop issues – pests, disease and fertility – but with a strong background in soil science, Mathesius hopes to shed light on the diversity of soils in the region and the unique management considerations that each necessitates.
In hopes of highlighting this diversity of soils and encouraging growers to dig a little deeper to better inform their management practices, Konrad enlisted the help of UCCE soil resource specialist Toby O'Geen to lead a field tour of three major soils in the southern Sacramento Valley. The event included three pit stops on two Yolo County farms and brought out a diversity of participants from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service agents, to resource conservationists, to farmers and crop advisors.
Kicking things off at Rominger Brother's Ranch -- a diversified family farm in Winters that grows everything from wine grapes to processing tomatoes to rice, wheat, corn, onions, alfalfa and hay -- O'Geen took the audience on a journey back in time, describing the rich natural history of the former floodplain that has given rise to the rich, productive soils that support California agriculture today. After introducing himself as a pedologist, or a scientist who studies the nature and properties of soil, he went on to introduce the five soil forming factors and their role in molding initial (1) parent material (i.e. rocks), under the influence of (2) climate, (3) topography and (4) organisms and over a given period of (5) time into soils.
Proving that soil scientists take the term “pit stop” literally, Mathesius shifted the conversation to a 1.5-meter deep hole in the ground, dug out the day before with a back hoe. Step by step, he walked participants through the process of analyzing a soil pit – cleaning the face, identifying horizons or individual layers and using the senses to assess soil properties and determine function. As he struck the face of the pit with a rock hammer, an audible difference was detected between the surface layers and the subsurface.
Working backwards from the sound, he explained that the subsurface was significantly harder, which he attributed to a finer texture and ultimately identified as a clay pan, a restrictive layer that prevents roots from penetrating deeply and has the capacity to waterlog soils, due to poor drainage. O'Geen offered some tangible advice as to how to manage these soils, quipping that a deep rip would be no better than cutting butter with a knife (eventually it all just settles back into place) while likening a slip plow to a giant shank that just inverts the soil, mixing things to about a depth of 6 feet and permanently eliminating the problem.
From there, Mathesius segued into a hands-on exercise to determine the soil texture, or percent distribution of various size particles, allowing participants to work on their pottery skills making balls and ribbons with the clay-rich soils. Discussing the many functions that soil texture controls, led the conversation down a rabbit-hole around water holding capacity and how to calculate the range of plant available water for your soil.
With the demos out of the way, they voyaged to the next pre-dug pit, bringing participants face to face with the harsh reality of soil heterogeneity. Just 300 feet away and it was as if we had ventured into another environment altogether, yet these soils formed in the same place, under the same climate and similar vegetation, but in a completely different time with slightly different starting material.
By changing just a couple of the ingredients in the special sauce of soil formation the results are completely different featuring a clay dominant surface soil and entirely different water management challenges. And these aren't just any clays, but a special class that swell and shrink as they wet and dry, oftentimes shearing roots under the pressure and creating a hospitable environment for disease to thrive. O'Geen suggested trying to keep them in the sweet spot where they are consistently moist, but not wet, and never allowed to dry out. Unfortunately, there is no precise measurement to that formula, “you just have to be almost like an artist. It's a lot of feel to it and the numbers sometimes just don't work out. It just comes with years of experience. Its one of those native intelligence things that you just have to feel your way through,” he noted.
Caravanning 20 miles back towards Davis, the tour arrived at the third and final pit, located at Triad Farms, a tomato operation in Dixon. Well-drained, young and fertile, Yolo loam soils are the poster children of agriculture, owing in large part to regular deposits of silts from past flood events. With not many management challenges to speak of, conversation immediately shifted towards an undocumented challenge that farmers on the eastern side of the Sacramento Valley are all too familiar with – the unavailability of potassium, even under intensive fertilization regimes. While the jury is still out on the cause and while it contradicts what soil scientists expect to find in those regions, possible explanations were tossed around and O'Geen used the opportunity to stress the importance of speaking up about things growers or advisors see going on in their area. Turns out the USDA-NRCS is working on updating its inventory of soil surveys, documenting soils across the nation and is currently seeking input on what's working for growers and where things are differing on the ground.
Ultimately, in closing, Mathesius called for more engagement between the university, extension and growers. O'Geen reminded everyone that “You can really learn a lot by digging a hole, looking at stuff, and developing theories. Sometimes you're wrong, but they're kind of fun to talk about."
Participants gather around the first soil pit of the field tour, as Toby O'Geen provides a brief natural history of the land.
Yolo County farmers and UC Cooperative Extension specialist Toby O'Geen, right,peer deep into the processes that formed the land just beneath their feet.
UCCE agronomy advisor Konrad Mathesius, left, talks soil texture and water-holding capacity.
Up close and personal with a soil pit, showing participants how to use basic tools of observation to assess soils!