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.