Utilizing their stealthy subterranean skills, the ever-increasing, seemingly indestructible community of pocket gophers continues to wreak havoc on public and private landscapes in and around Cambria.
At Coast Union High School, those redoubtable rodents have been making life difficult for student athletes and others utilizing the baseball, football, softball and soccer fields for many years. Athletes have been injured — or have simply lost their strategic momentum — tripping on those ubiquitous gopher mounds or stepping in freshly carved gopher holes.
Baseballs struck on the ground and heading for a fielder’s glove have been known to carom wildly to the left or right — or into the player’s face — after striking a gopher pile.
Previous attempts to rid playing and practice fields of these pests have included setting traps, pumping gas (fumigating) into their tunnels and using poisons. But so far nothing has proved to be fully and consistently effective.
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However, high hopes are being pinned on assets provided by Mother Nature. Indeed, the school’s plan is to attack the marauding miscreants using barn owls. Enter Coast Union’s “integrated pest management” program, headed by David Bidwell, who serves in the lead maintenance position for the Coast Unified School District.
“Barn owls are master rodent killers, and they decimate rodent populations, including gophers. They’re effective, they’re environmentally friendly, they’re cost effective and we’re going to see a dramatic drop in the gopher population,” Bidwell said.
Built by Gary Grohman, the boxes cost about $100 each and have a specific owl-friendly kind of straw inside. They are erected 17 feet high on poles (constructed by Bidwell using recycled well casings purchased from Coast Pipe in Paso Robles); the boxes face northeast, and the pedestals are designed to swing down to ground level for servicing as needed.
Three owl boxes have been installed: one positioned near the baseball field, one near the soccer practice fields and the third close to the football field. In addition to their ability to see in near total darkness, barn owls have extraordinary hearing, which allows these nocturnal raptors to hear gophers gnawing on plants and churning up the soil at night.
Bronco coaches’ views
Coast Union athletic director and head football coach Thom Holt said it will be a “great asset” to have the barn owls. “At games we’ve had issues with players injured because of gopher holes.
“The maintenance crews are doing their best. They’re trying to get ahead of the problem, but it’s hard. With those owl boxes, we hope to get ahead of the issue. Barn owls have been used in other schools around the coastal area, and it’s worked like magic,” Holt said.
“As athletic director I want to see fewer injuries on playing fields, which gives more playing time for our kids.”
Coast softball coach Rocky Fordyce — who also serves a leadership position with the school’s grounds crew — hopes the barn owl boxes “might be a remedy for the future. The softball field has its share of gophers. We hit the gophers hard Monday through Friday, then on the weekend they seem to multiply by 30 times.”
This spring, “the gophers have invaded us really hard,” Fordyce added. “Now, a couple ground squirrels are also moving in — it’s a never-ending battle! We have tried pretty much everything.”
Girls soccer coach Tamara Corbet said the gopher populations “are very bad. They are a major problem on the soccer practice field.” She said she has witnessed a few player injuries in past years because of gopher holes and piles.
Three Cambria Little League teams use the school’s baseball field near Leffingwell High School, and Cambria Reds coach Gary Stephenson said he is “thrilled” that barn owl boxes have been installed.
“The gophers are a constant presence and a safety hazard,” Stephenson reported. “We knock the mounds down, and they come right back … and we have two or three new holes every time we have a game. We warn opposing Little League teams about the gopher holes. … It’s a little embarrassing.”
On Sunday, July 5, baseball coach Brian Machado was preparing the Coast Union ball field for a summer club game and when he pulled the tarp off the pitching mound, there was a gopher hole on the mound. He filled up the hole, but when he went to hook up the hose to the valve box behind the mound (to water down the dusty infield), the valve box was filled to the brim with “fluffed clay dirt.”
The outfield is “rough” with gopher holes and piles,” Machado said, but the infield is “pretty good.”
How barn owls hunt
According to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources department, because barn owls have a dramatically pronounced facial “disc,” their faces act as a kind of radar dish that collects and guides sounds into their ears, which are right next to their eyes (covered by white feathers).
And their fascinating, unique faces have asymmetrically set ear openings (the left ear is slightly higher than the right ear). What this configuration means is that if a gopher-produced sound is first detected by the right ear, the owl instinctively knows that the sound is coming from below, according to the UC website (www.ipm.uc davis.edu).
In this case, the barn owl turns its head slightly to the right so the sound is arriving at both ears simultaneously. The owl then knows the prey is directly in front of it. The time difference between the when sound reaches its right ear and its head turns to receive the sound in both ears is about 30 millionths of a second, according to www.owlpages.com.
The barn owl’s bill is pointed downward, which increases the surface area over which the sound waves are collected. This means the owl can easily detect the faint sounds of a gopher creating a new hole and pushing soil outside the opening.
The translation of left, right, down and up sounds are instantly processed in the owl’s brain, which creates a mental image of the sound’s exact point of origin.
The owl then flies silently towards the sound; if the sound moves, corrections are made midflight. About 2 feet before it makes contact with the prey, the owl’s talons are thrust out in front of its face and it actually closes its eyes briefly before the kill, according to the UC website.
“We are moving away from poisons. A family of barn owls can kill up to 3,000 gophers in a single breeding season,” Bidwell said.
Regardless of how many gophers there are chewing away on Coast’s playing fields, bringing in barn owls seems a wise decision to most observers.