There’s positive news for student-athletes who use the playing fields at Coast Union High School, and potentially ruinous news for the prolific pocket gopher communities that wreak havoc on those fields.
Generations of these ubiquitous rodents have been applying their stealthy subterranean skills at the school for years, but now they are being challenged by a ghostly white competitor that takes no prisoners. A wily barn owl has taken residence in one of the three owl boxes installed on campus last summer, and recent “pellets” found beneath the box (closest to the baseball field) confirm that at least two rodents have provided meals for that redoubtable raptor.
Barn owls regurgitate pellets — what remains of their prey, including bones — outside the box after their system has utilized the nutritional portion of the meal.
Barn owls have extraordinary hearing abilities, enabling them to hear a gopher digging in the dirt or gnawing on plants quite far away in the dark of night. With the help of their exceptionally sensitive ears (one is higher than the other), their brain instantly processes the location of sounds that allow the owl to zero in and swoop down with deadly talons to nab the unsuspecting rodent.
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David Bidwell, lead maintenance employee for Coast Unified School District, installed the barn owl boxes and oversees the “integrated pest management” program.
“Those owls are so effective. I just hope they can make homes in the other two boxes,” he said. “They kill a lot. We have barn owls at the middle school, and now we have one near the garden. I’m stoked.”
Bidwell recently trapped and killed four gophers in the school’s organic garden, but the task of reducing the gopher population on the sprawling athletic fields, it is hoped, will be managed by barn owls.
Special to The Cambrian.