For many a Malibu resident involved in gardening, planting expensive new landscaping or even vineyards, the pocket gopher can be the bane of their existence. The most common question neighbors seem to ask on social media site Nextdoor is, “How do I get rid of gophers?” The voracious little rodents live underground, where they eat plant roots, sometimes pulling an entire plant underground if it’s particularly tasty. They can also leave a yard full of holes and mounds of dirt.
Because poisoning the little gophers (as well as other rodents like rats and mice) is extremely harmful to local wildlife populations of hawks, owls, bobcats, coyotes and even mountain lions (because the poison travels up the food chain), what’s a gardener to do?
Increasingly, in Malibu and elsewhere in California, property owners are putting up barn owl nest boxes as a natural way to control rodents. For over 20 years, studies have shown that attracting barn owls to a property means excellent biological control of all kinds of rodents. A family of barn owls can consume 2,500 rodents a year. One barn owl can eat 155 gophers per year—in fact, gophers make up the biggest part of their diets.
Local resident Jill Ahrens, in the Bonsall Canyon neighborhood, recently posted a photo of a barn owl using one of the four nest boxes she had installed on her property just two months ago.
“Do you feel it? Spring is coming! We have a new tenant—this sweet barn owl nicknamed Bowie is taking one of our owl boxes for the spring term,” Ahrens wrote.
Her nest boxes were put up by Scott Logan, owner of the Wild Wings Backyard Nature Store in Sherman Oaks. Scott knows Malibu well and has installed dozens of nest boxes around the city, although many were wiped out by the Woolsey Fire. Recently, he’s put nest boxes up in the Bonsall Canyon area, Corral Canyon, Encinal Canyon and Point Dume, and confirms barn owls live in those neighborhoods.
He has a procedure when anyone contacts him about nest boxes: Logan asks them to email their address. He then looks at the property on Google Earth to see if it’s a good candidate in terms of trees and other houses. If so, he goes out and walks the property, looking at the landscaping.
In Ahrens’ case, Logan liked the fact that she was very close to a natural area—Zuma Canyon, owned by the National Park Service.
“Habitat is very important to barn owls,” he said.
Four nest boxes were installed on the Ahrens property “because it increases the chances of having a barn owl move in,” Logan explained.
“Males and females will roost together,” he continued. “The female kicks the male out of the nest box after the first egg hatches, but he continues to bring food to the entrance for the nestlings, and will roost (sleep) in one of the nearby empty nest boxes.”
Logan added the reason it’s necessary to put up nest boxes is that owls would normally roost and nest in tree cavities, but people tend to destroy that habitat by removing dead trees and branches.
Once the nest boxes are up, he instructs customers to ask each of their neighbors not to use rat poison— it kills barn owls that eat rodents that have eaten the poison.
“It’s a powerful message,” he said.
Experts describe barn owls as one of the most skilled rodent hunters in North America, saying they don’t need to see prey to make a kill—its dish-shaped face and asymmetrical ears help it locate rodents like gophers or mice foraging in grass as high as 16 inches tall.
According to experts, a barn owl nest box should be 15-20 feet high, with the opening shaded from sun and wind, and mounted on a pole to prevent honeybees from taking up residence. They say it helps not to over-prune nearby trees (because owls need a place to perch), not to use bright lights in the yard at night, to provide a large bird bath and mow the lawn less often to provide more of a hunting ground.
And FYI, barn owls don’t eat cats or dogs—it’s not possible for them to attack an adult pet and lift it up.
For those interested in a hands-on project, it’s possible to build and install your own nest boxes. One of the best free plans come from California’s UC-Davis: magazine.ucdavis.edu/build-an-owl-box. It’s also possible to purchase the nest boxes online on sites like eBay and the nearby nonprofit Ojai Raptor Center, which has them available for pick-up: ojairaptorcenter.org/raptor-store/barn-owl-box. Logan’s store, Wild Wings LA, can be found online at wildwingsla.com/contact-1.