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Barn Owls Rule In Sugar Cane Fields
Florida’s 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area has become an unlikely home for one of the densest populations of barn owls in the U.S. They’re attracted by hordes of rodents and the many cozy owl boxes that have been built by farmers for them to live in. More barn owls means less rodenticide and fewer rodents to damage sugar cane, rice and vegetable crops.
In the 1970’s, damage from rodents to sugar cane crops was assessed at $30 million/year, says Dr. Richard Raid, professor of plant pathology, with the University of Florida Everglades Research and Education Center. As weather starts to cool in the fall, several species of rats and mice invade the fields and chew and damage the ripening cane. Rodenticides help, but they need to be reapplied and are very costly.
“I wouldn’t say owls can totally replace rodenticides, but growers can certainly reduce their management costs,” Raid says. A $25 wooden owl box lasts for years and houses owl families capable of consuming 1,000 to 2,000 rodents a year.
The idea to use barn owls started in 1994 when Raid mentored a high school student for a science fair project. They set out boxes designed for barn owls and within a couple of months, barn owls started moving in.
“Now, owls often move in within a day when new boxes are put up along the edges of fields,” Raid says. “Sugar cane and barn owls are almost made for one another. Rodents are active at night, which coincides with owls. Barn owls are one of the most prolific raptors capable of hatching 4 to 7 chicks during each of Florida’s two nesting seasons, fall and spring. This also coincides with the cane harvest, which opens fields up for easy predation. Owlets can eat up to 1 1/2 times their weight per day, so an adult pair has to bring 20 to 24 rodents per night as chicks mature.
“Barn owls are desperate for nesting sites,” Raid adds, noting he once discovered owl chicks in a blue plastic barrel someone stuck on a post. However, wooden or fiberglass boxes have proven to work best to provide the dark, safe space barn owls seek.
Ideally, owl boxes are placed on the field edges with the hole facing north on 4 by 4 treated posts about 8 ft. off the ground. Distance between them varies. They are spaced about every quarter mile along a railroad track, for example. Many Florida barn owls leave during the heat of the summer, which is a good time for growers to clean and treat boxes with Permethrin to deter Africanized honeybees and blood-sucking insects.
Barn owl boxes are 3 ft. long, 1 ft. wide and 16 to 18 in. tall, with a 5 by 7-in. hole in an upper corner. Owls nest at the opposite end, using the owl pellets (regurgitated bits of eaten prey) as nesting material where they lay eggs and hatch their chicks.
Over the years Raid and volunteers have built and put up more than 500 boxes. Cooperative growers also purchase and install fiberglass boxes on their own.
“This is barn owl heaven. They love open land. The barn owl project is one of the best programs for the sugar cane industry and agriculture down here,” Raid says. “And we’ve educated thousands of kids and adults along the way.”
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Dr. Richard Raid, Everglades Research and Education Center, 3200 East Palm Beach Road, Belle Glade, Fla. 33430 (ph 561 993-1511; rnraid@ufl.edu; www.erec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension-programs/barn-owl-research-and-extension).

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2020 - Volume #44, Issue #1