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Stories from the valley

Investing in Raptors

Contributed by Tim Johnson

This last weekend we invested about half a day and several hundred dollars to upgrade and replace two owl-nesting boxes in the vineyard. In total, we now sport three of these boxes for 30 acres of grapes. Add our old barn and we likely have three to five owls on the ranch at any given time.

holding up an owl nest box

If you are a barn owl, you love these freestanding boxes perfectly sized for you to rest and raise a brood of young.  They are cool, dark and the entryway just the right size.

How do we know the owls love them?  It’s easy to see. In the evenings it’s not uncommon to see an owl or a pair sitting on top of the nest box waiting to start their evening hunt. We also have to politely evict them for the annual cleaning.  On the way up the ladder, you’re sure there is no one “home.” Open the box to clean and replace the sawdust and, more often than not, an owl will launch itself past you head to find a roost until you are finished.

We love the owl boxes for the great service they provide controlling gophers, voles and other rodents that proliferate in the native cover crop between our vines. They are not only hard on young vines, eating roots and killing the newly planted vines, but they also keep their teeth in shape gnawing on drip lines.

undigested rodent bones found in an owl pellet

Recent studies show that one owl can eat up to 1,000 rodents in an average year. From the many owl pellets (the regurgitated hair and bones that an owl expels after their meal is digested – it resembles a large pellet hence the name) we find at the base of the boxes we know our owls are doing their job well!