TEACHING CHILDREN ABOUT OWLS
The Owl Project is encouraging children in Joburg’s townships to appreciate and protect these fascinating raptors that feed on rats, writes Estella Moore
WHEN owls fly, they swish like trees in a breeze. The children nodded at this description, and some backed it up with a “yes”. The boy elaborated: “They make a sshhh-sshhh sound like they’re not there, but we know they are because even if we can’t see them, we can feel the shadow of their wings.”
Some of his friends giggled. Where they’d been too shy, he had stepped up to answer a question. But while children delight in the assurance of other children, it was the truth of his account that impressed them.
And that wasn’t the only poetic confidence shown in a group of grade 6s and 7s from Alexandra who met at the Birdlifesa Fair at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens earlier this month.
Drawn together by the Owl Project (owlproject.org) – which showed its collection of nearly 2 000 children’s artworks illustrating the mystical hunting bird – the young creatives were there to admire their own expression.
Their neighbourhoods relegated to the fringes of modern Johannesburg through poverty, this collaboration between them and the environmental activists is helping to crush stereotypes of both. Run by Joburg-based Ecosolutions Urban Ecology, owlproject.org is working hard to see that happen.
Apart from facilitating the artworks – which this year included a dazzling parade of masks – it continually collects and collates data. Most recently, this was enhanced by 4 000 questionnaires filled in by children and their parents in Alex, some from schools which had participated in its programmes, and some who had not.
In that instance, the project sought a more robust understanding of the “mythologies” supposedly surrounding owls.
The results showed that children whose schools had participated had got the message that owls are good for the environment, and their parents’ answers revealed that their minds were changing too, because of this.
Ecosolutions’s founder, ecologist Jonathan Haw, says that while the science is important, it also matters that “we’re turning them on to the magnificence of nature”.
The children at the Birdlife fair were from Marlboro Combined, Carter Primary and Iputheng Primary in Alex, and they number only a few among the 100 000 who have become owlproject.org’s “ambassadors”. The campaign is also evident in Katlehong, Vosloorus and Thokoza in Ekurhuleni, and Kliptown in Soweto.
The project has grown as urban owl habitats have expanded and people’s spaces have contracted. And although it’s a love of the raptor they have in common, there is a clear purpose to the work they’re all doing.
Ecosolutions has just celebrated two decades in business.
Owlproject.org has been a part of it for almost as long – it is now reaching a second generation of children, including high numbers growing up in crowded and working-class areas.
In addition to education and art programmes, it has put up many owl boxes in schools which are quiet zones at night when the hunters are at their most active. Proud of their involvement, children not only get to participate in feeding the birds, but experience the thrill of their flight and return.
A pioneer of those familiar wooden owl boxes, Ecosolutions extends its straightforward philosophy into communities in richer suburbs as well as areas which are economically stressed. Its zeitgeist is the same it has always been: safer, cleaner environments through conservation.
This has occasionally antagonised a few more traditional animal activists who have alleged that owlproject.org is releasing barn owls into places like Alex to detrimental effect because people are harming and even killing them though superstition.
But Haw, who doesn’t subscribe to such polarising ideas, says they don’t have to release “new” owls into townships because there’s a simple equation at play. Barn owls, which adapt well to dense urban environments, are already plentiful there as there is a consistent food supply of rats.
That said, Ecosolutions does return owls to their old hunting grounds.
The company does a lot of rehabilitation work with its partners on owls brought from across Johannesburg, and has found that releasing these birds into the wild once recovered from injury can be detrimental.
Studies show that barn owls – which are not endangered – would aim to return to where they had come from, and Haw says the same is true of most wild creatures.
AZWINNDINI NETSHIMBONI Zenzeleni Primary School teacher
Owlproject.org officer Delina Chipape says the “superstition” issue may well be the “mythology” itself. She says she has more faith in the people living in the areas where she works than some outside may give them credit for, and is not convinced township residents widely share a presumed fear of owls as harbingers of death.
Although the influx of migrants from other African countries has brought some shifts in cultural responses to owls, South Africans are less inclined to discriminate against this companion in their desperate fight against disease.
A family of barn owls can easily consume up to 2 500 rats a year, and even owlets are fit for that purpose just
The owls even stay in our ceiling at school. We are all well-familiarised with them now
weeks after fledging. Plus, more owls mean less use of rat poison – poison being one of the most prevalent reasons for illness, suicide and death in poorer communities such as Alex.
Raising consciousness comes naturally to Chipape, who is an artist and designer as well as a conservationist.
She is invigorated by her work at the project, daily steering an Ecosolutions bakkie around busy streets where more and more shacks are being built on the verges to accommodate a steady flow of arrivals. She sees everyone around her as possible participants in an owl-friendly nation.
Her first public talk happened in 8th Avenue on Alexandra Hofmeyer Street, where an injured owl was found earlier this year and taken to the Sandton SPCA by children living there.
Among them were two boys who had thrown stones at the owl, bringing to mind stories from many childhoods in which suburban children conventionally used pellet guns to shoot barbets. Still today, rehabilitation centres can be busiest during the school holidays tending to garden birds injured by BB ammunition.
“One of the many things I love about this job is the wow of it,” says Chipape, who invited the boys and some of the children in their neighbourhood to help rehabilitate the injured owl.
They voluntarily visited the Sandton SPCA, which is on the edge of Alex, every day, helping to feed the owl and monitoring its progress before it was released.
Those “ambassadors” then also took part in one of Chipape’s favourite activities: marvelling at what lies inside an owl pellet. Owlproject.org supplies junior scientist kits to many of the children it meets, whose eyes are then opened to the perfect rat skeletons they can construct simply by piecing together what’s left once the owls have had dinner. Nothing could make the rat-eating power of these birds more real than this evidence.
Chipape is now extending the project’s reach by educating drivers at the two major taxi ranks in Alex. They’re also being offered stickers which promote the campaign and, like thousands of children – and their parents, teachers and principals – many are likely to join the movement that confirms owls are not omens, but heralds.
Where there’s an owl, there’s an unstinting appetite for the rats that not only harm humans, but also eat valued supplies and destroy cables of all kinds that cost precious funds to replace. People have reported seeing rats as big as cats scurrying through the alleyways where they live, but barn owls, on average the length of a ruler, are not intimidated.
Teacher Azwinndini Netshimboni of Zenzeleni Primary School – which borders the tumult of Alex’s main arterial London Road – said owlproject.org’s work was part of their classroom culture.
“When there are owls in our boxes, the children will come during the evening to see them. The owls even stay in our ceiling at school, inside the roof. We’re all well-familiarised with them now.”
Zenzeleni Primary has been a partner of the project for many years, as has its adjacent school, Iphuteng Primary, where teacher Elizabeth Mashiloane says the timetable is even adjusted slightly to accommodate the children feeding the owls when the birds nest in their box.
Haw, who has had a passion for raptors since high school, gets joy from witnessing the harmony that exists between people and owls.
“When we were working in Sebokeng years ago, there was a 15-year-old girl from Residentia Secondary School who joined the campaign. In 2001, the BBC found her again when it was making a documentary about the Owl Project in the townships, and asked her about the impact it had had on her. She said, ‘I learned that if I’m scared of something, I just need to find out more about it, then I won’t be afraid any more’.
“That was exactly the purpose.”