Cambrian: Sports

Barn owl is on the lookout for gophers at Coast Union field

This sleeping barn owl has taken up residence near the Coast Union baseball field. Because barn owls hunt gophers at night, the school hopes the bird will help whittle down the gopher population on campus playing fields.
This sleeping barn owl has taken up residence near the Coast Union baseball field. Because barn owls hunt gophers at night, the school hopes the bird will help whittle down the gopher population on campus playing fields.

There’s good news for coaches and players using the Coast Union baseball field and other playing fields on the high school campus. And there’s potentially bad news for the ubiquitous pocket gophers (Thomomys species) that create holes and mounds of dirt that present a hazard for student athletes.

The recent arrival of a barn owl has created a positive dynamic for the playing fields, because as is widely known, these beautiful owls with stunning heart-shaped faces hunt and kill gophers.

It’s clear the gopher infestation is a menace on campus, and after years of trying various methods to control gophers, nothing has proved successful.

In 2015, Coast’s maintenance crew installed three barn owl boxes near the fields – one directly adjacent to the baseball field – and hopes were raised when the first barn owl arrived (in early 2016) and remains of gophers were found beneath the box closest to the baseball facility.

However, that owl’s talon got caught in a chain-link fence and – because the bird’s leg was severed – it had to be euthanized at Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay.

Meantime, Coast baseball coach Brian Machado saw this most recent barn owl perched on some weathered lumber 20 yards or so from the box on Saturday, Aug. 5. It was sleeping, as barn owls do during the day. They hunt at night.

In fact, barn owls have extraordinary hearing, allowing these nocturnal raptors to detect gophers gnawing on plants and disturbing the soil at night. The barn owl’s “facial disc” acts as a kind of radar dish that collects and guides faint sounds into their ears, which are right next to their eyes, according to the a website hosted by UC Davis.

When the owl’s highly sensitive ears detect a gopher creating a new hole – many yards away – it flies swiftly toward the sound. Should the sound move slightly, the owl corrects its trajectory in mid-flight. When the bird has stealthily arrived about 2 feet from its prey, its powerful talons are thrust out in front of its face; it closes its eyes, and seizes the surprised and soon-to-be-consumed rodent.

Machado reports in a text interview that he has spotted just one recent fresh gopher mound down the left field line. But otherwise, “There are zero mounds around the infield. This gives me hope,” he added, because a hard hit ground ball that collides with a gopher mound can take a wicked hop and, at best, cause the infielder to miss the ball, or, at worst, smash into the player’s face.

The hope among Coast coaches is that this newest barn owl will employ its best hunting strategies, and at least put a dent in the ever-expanding pocket gopher community.

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