Owl­ing at the Moon

At Cra­dle Moon Con­ser­vancy on the out­skirts of Joburg, in­jured owls are raised into a for­mi­da­ble rat pack


Ro­dents be­ware. The owls of Cra­dle Moon are the new rat­pack in town

Delina Chipape steps in­side the hack­ing pen to a joy­ous re­union. Two South­ern White­faced Owlets bounce ex­cit­edly from perch to perch. One ap­pears ruf­fled and un­kempt while the other, sleek and well-groomed, falls into Delina’s arms and re­poses like a new­born child.

The de­voted young nat­u­ral­ist, project co­or­di­na­tor for owl­pro­ject.org, hand-reared the in­fant fledglings months ear­lier, feed­ing them with tweez­ers un­til they were strong enough for place­ment in the pre-re­lease pen at Cra­dle Moon in Mul­der­s­drift north-west of Joburg. Clearly, the owls did not for­get.

“It’s a good feel­ing to care for them. They are adorable,” says the pretty young woman with a univer­sity de­gree in na­ture con­ser­va­tion, as she cra­dles the small, white-faced owl with bright-yel­low eyes.

We are joined by Brett Smith, game ranger and cur­rent owl care­taker at Cra­dle Moon.

Brett is an old hand at the re­lease (hack­ing) process. He has as­sisted owl­pro­ject.org on other

oc­ca­sions, hav­ing worked with Barn Owls and Spot­ted Ea­gle-Owls. The re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of South­ern White-faced Owls presents a new chal­lenge and he bus­tles about with en­thu­si­asm.

Brett feeds the owls daily and en­sures min­i­mal hu­man con­tact. Soon, he will as­sist in ring­ing and re­leas­ing them. The pen doors will be closed and food placed on top of the en­clo­sure for as long as they need it, and the young owls will quickly shift away from hand­outs, and hunt on their own.

Owl­pro­ject.org does a tremen­dous job of re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing in­jured adult owls and vul­ner­a­ble owlets, sav­ing many from cer­tain death, but there is more to the story. The project to save owls con­nects the dots to an an­cient sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween rats, man and the noc­tur­nal birds of prey. I’m ea­ger to meet the bi­ol­o­gist in charge and learn more about the com­plex nat­u­ral link.

We leave the sprawl­ing, fer­tile grounds at Cra­dle Moon, where the young owls will soon live a free and easy life, to catch up with Jonathan Haw, di­rec­tor of EcoSo­lu­tions, an en­vi­ron­men­tally driven en­ter­prise fo­cused on non-toxic, ef­fec­tive and sus­tain­able pest con­trol.

Jonathan tells me owl­pro­ject.org be­gan more than a decade ago on the heels of a tragic town­ship episode when two chil­dren died from in­gest­ing rat poi­son. The Na­tional Depart­ment of Health im­plored EcoSo­lu­tions to find a better method of rat con­trol and they sim­ply looked to the past for a brighter fu­ture.

Owl­pro­ject.org be­came the non-profit so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity out­reach project man­aged by EcoSo­lu­tions to con­trol town­ship rat pop­u­la­tions and ed­u­cate school­child­ren about the im­por­tance of owls. The pro­gramme has since ex­panded to in­clude the place­ment of owl boxes in coun­try es­tates and busi­ness parks to pro­mote the erad­i­ca­tion of nui­sance ro­dents.

“The re­la­tion­ship be­tween rats, owls and man can be traced back to the cave­man,” the bi­ol­o­gist says, ref­er­enc­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds at Gla­dys­vale in the Cra­dle of Hu­mankind

World Her­itage Site. He ex­plains how the brec­cia there ex­poses fos­silised owl pel­lets that tell an an­cient tale of rats feed­ing on hu­man de­tri­tus, and the owls that fol­lowed.

As hu­man­ity ex­panded so did the rat pop­u­la­tions, caus­ing large-scale dam­age to food sources, and spread­ing dis­ease. Poi­sons cre­ated to con­trol the ver­min pre­sented risks of their own, to both hu­mans and prey species. “There is no such thing as an owl-friendly rat poi­son,” Jonathan says, and sug­gests that the tox­ins used to kill rats elim­i­nate the very preda­tor best suited to con­trol their pop­u­la­tions. He says that, of the 12 species of owls in South Africa, the best-suited for rat con­trol is the

Barn Owl. The Spot­ted Ea­gle-Owl comes in a close sec­ond.

Barn Owls can reg­u­late clutch size based on the pop­u­la­tion of rats, he says, and the Spot­ted

… of the 12 species of owls in South Africa, the best-suited for rat con­trol

is the Barn Owl. The Spot­ted Ea­gle-Owl comes in a close sec­ond

Ea­gle-Owl, typ­i­cally an in­sec­ti­vore, be­comes a rat eater when ro­dents are plen­ti­ful. The keen nat­u­ral re­la­tion­ship be­tween owls and their prey fos­tered the idea to po­si­tion them for pest con­trol, Jonathan says.

“We take in about 150 owls ev­ery year from var­i­ous sources, such as the SPCA, vet­eri­nary clin­ics and in­di­vid­u­als, and get many more calls.” The calls are of­ten about owls in home at­tics. Our pref­er­ence is to go to the site and dis­cuss place­ment of a nearby owl box or to sim­ply leave them alone.

EcoSo­lu­tions and owl­pro­ject.org main­tain 37 lo­ca­tions where they place birds into hack­ing pens. Owl-box re­lease sites are di­vided be­tween town­ship school grounds, pri­vate hold­ings or busi­ness lo­ca­tions. The process from hack­ing to re­lease is not a lengthy one and owls are only col­lected for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive cap­tiv­ity when un­able to care for them­selves. “We are not a bird sanc­tu­ary,” Jonathan says.

The ef­fec­tive­ness of the pro­gramme is mea­sured through the col­lec­tion of owl pel­lets

the undi­gested scraps of bone and fur spat out and found be­low an owl box or nearby perch. Owl­pro­ject.org work­ers col­lect the pel­lets and dis­sect them to de­ter­mine the num­ber of rats killed and eaten.

The knowl­edge­able owl ex­pert shares with me re­sults of a pel­let study from Pan­nar Seed farm, an agri­cul­tural site that col­lab­o­rates with EcoSo­lu­tions for rat con­trol. The study shows that one fam­ily of Barn Owls can con­sume up to 2 500 rats per year. Pan­nar cur­rently main­tains 12 Barn Owl boxes, which will re­sult in the erad­i­ca­tion of thou­sands of rats.

Jonathan senses my in­ter­est and in­vites me to join Delina and fel­low em­ployee, Hus­sein

Moyo on an owl-ring­ing mis­sion, the fi­nal step be­fore the birds are set free. He tells me two Barn Owls in a hack­ing pen at the Steyn City Eques­trian Cen­tre in Chartwell, north of Joburg, will be re­leased the fol­low­ing week. Jonathan doesn’t have to ask twice.

Delina and I meet Hus­sein at the EcoSo­lu­tions work­shop where, among other things, he man­ages the con­struc­tion of owl boxes. He is putting the fi­nal touches on a box with a large en­trance hole to ac­com­mo­date a fam­ily of Spot­ted Ea­gleOwls. Barn Owls are smaller than Ea­gle

Owls and boxes are con­structed ac­cord­ingly. Hus­sein fin­ishes his task and we de­part for the coun­try­side.

We ar­rive at the Eques­trian Cen­tre dur­ing late af­ter­noon to find the Barn Owls holed up in­side their box. Delina tells me that Barn Owls are ex­clu­sively noc­tur­nal, but that Spot­ted Ea­gle-Owls are more di­ur­nal and com­monly en­coun­tered dur­ing day­light hours.

Hus­sein and I en­ter the hack­ing pen. He reaches in­side the wooden box and rouses both birds from their day­time slum­ber. Two ju­ve­nile Barn Owls burst from the por­tal and fly eva­sively in­side the en­clo­sure. The chase is on. The birds have re­mained feral and averse to hu­man con­tact. It will suit them well in the days to come.

Hus­sein cor­ners one of the owls, gently pins its wings and grasps it by the feet to con­trol the sharp talons. Once cap­tured, the owl im­me­di­ately sur­ren­ders. Sur­pris­ingly, there is nei­ther thrash­ing nor bit­ing. Typ­i­cal be­hav­iour, Hus­sein says.

The ex­pe­ri­enced owl ringer uses his body to shep­herd the sec­ond owl to the far side of the pen, and ex­its and se­cures the door. Once out­side, the process be­gins. Delina hands over the num­bered ring and band­ing pli­ers like a sur­gi­cal nurse. She doc­u­ments the date, time and lo­ca­tion on a phone app then as­so­ci­ates it with the spe­cial num­ber as­signed this Barn Owl. The op­er­a­tion is fast, hu­mane and pro­fes­sional.

The ring­ing data will be sent to a col­lec­tion cen­tre as­so­ci­ated with the Univer­sity of

Cape Town and logged with SAFRING, the or­gan­i­sa­tion that ad­min­is­ters all bird ring­ing in South Africa. “The leg band will re­main on the bird for life,” says Delina.

It’s a bit trick­ier to col­lect the sec­ond owl, with two birds whirling and shuck­ing in­side the pen, but Hus­sein suc­cess­fully cor­ners the un­banded owl and the process is re­peated. Both owls, now safely ringed, are re­turned to the pen. They set­tle quickly and re­turn to their dark abode. The job com­plete, Delina wants to show me some­thing more.

We walk the grounds of Steyn City Eques­trian Cen­tre where sev­eral more owl boxes are lo­cated, and stop un­der one of them. She col­lects one of the owl pel­lets lit­tered be­low and, with no sign of squeamish­ness, picks it up, pulls apart the grey, ob­long mat­ter and ex­poses tiny bones and ro­dent hair.

“It’s good to see this. The owls are do­ing their job.” She smiles, know­ing that her work truly makes a dif­fer­ence.

This Spot­ted Ea­gle-Owl flew into the au­thor’s chalet at a re­mote bush camp.

TOP LEFT: Delina Chipape, pro­gramme co­or­di­na­tor for owl­pro­ject.org, nur­tured this baby South­ern White-faced Owl from in­fancy. It has been re­leased on the grounds of Cra­dle Moon Lake­side Sa­faris. TOP RIGHT: Brett Smith, game ranger at Cra­dle Moon, is an old hand at the hack­ing process, and has re­leased many owls into the wild. ABOVE: Jonathan Haw with EcoSo­lu­tions ecol­o­gist Sara Or­chard­son, and Delina Chipape and at the EcoSo­lu­tions/owl­pro­ject.org head of­fice.

LEFT: Among the 12 species of owls that in­habit South Africa, Barn Owls are most ef­fi­cient at erad­i­cat­ing rats.RIGHT: Owl­pro­ject.org has in­tro­duced more than 100 000 town­ship chil­dren to the study of owls. Old su­per­sti­tions about owls are slowly fad­ing.BE­LOW LEFT TO RIGHT: Delina Chipape lo­cates owl pel­lets un­der an owl box and ex­poses the undi­gested bones and ro­dent hair. In the lab­o­ra­tory Delina dis­sects owl pel­lets. Owl­pro­ject.org con­ducts a Ju­nior Sci­en­tist pro­gramme that al­lows school­child­ren to par­tic­i­pate in the process and learn about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween owls and rats. As­sorted bones and a rat skull re­moved from one of the pel­lets can be clearly seen. The sci­en­tist used a chart to iden­tify each in­di­vid­ual ro­dent bone.

LEFT: Owl care­taker Peter Philip Karanzi shows an oc­cu­pied owl box in use at Steyn City Eques­trian Cen­tre. RIGHT: Hus­sein Moyo (right) pre­pares to ring a Barn Owl while Peter Philip Karanzi looks on.BE­LOW: The ring­ing process is the fi­nal step be­fore owls are re­leased. Each owl is as­signed a spe­cific num­ber as part of a data col­lec­tion process. The ring will re­main on the bird for life. (Photo owl­pro­ject.org)

ABOVE: Owl boxes pro­vide safe and com­fort­able nest­ing abodes for sev­eral species of owls, in­clud­ing these Spot­ted Ea­gle-Owls. BE­LOW: Spot­ted Ea­gle-Owls are di­ur­nal and are seen dur­ing the day.

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