I grew up in the east valley of San Diego and was fortunate to live in a semi rural area in a home on an acre and a half my parents bought long before California property became unattainable for many. Mom and Dad were far from what you would consider farmers but they did go through a cow raising phase, a pig raising phase and we seemed to always have chickens. Something I am sure they learned from both sets of my Grandparents who raised gardens and animals for food: a practice that has slowly become a forgotten way of life. I think I took this lifestyle for granted and often dreamed of owning a small farm myself someday as unlikely as it seemed.
As much as I enjoyed raising domestic animals back then I also loved the wildlife that that occurred naturally on our land. Snakes lizards and frogs, skunks, possums and fox, and on occasion, the unmistakable serenade of coyotes on the nearby sage covered hills. Hawks, crows and Turkey Vultures were common as well and as I got older I learned to identify many of the birds and raptors. My favorite to spot after dark had to be the amazing Barn owl. That brilliant white heart shaped face looking right at me from the other end of my flashlight beam is something I will always remember and to this days still gets me excited.
Barn Owls occur in most of the lower 48 states and are rodent killing machines. They are cavity nesters and will gladly make a home in an well place well made nest box. Though we did not have any large hollow trees or barn rafters for them to nest in they learned to adapt to the So Cal lifestyle. A long row of palm trees with untrimmed palm fronds that grew in the neighbors yard proved to be an ideal home for multiple families of Barn owls. Among the other wildlife, our rural area was home to plenty of pocket gophers, mice and rats to sustain these beautiful and sometimes noisy neighbors. I still remember laying in bed hearing the loud clicks and screeches of fledgling barn owls outside my open window in the spring.
Amber and I moved our family to Arizona in 1998 and it was great to learn that Barn owls even live in the desert. For the first several years we lived in subdivisions I would occasionally, when outside at night, hear that unmistakable screech in the dark above like an old friend saying hello.
My first face to face encounter in the desert came while on a quail hunt in the open desert near Florence Arizona. I was walking alone in a dry wash with nothing but cholla and creosote bush in every directions and the last place you would expect to see a barn owl. I saw on a bluff adjacent to the wash what looked like a concrete pad and went to investigate. It turned out to be a abandon mine shaft. Not the kind that goes horizontally into a mountain, but a square hole in the ground that you could not see the bottom of, nor would you want to.
I approached slowly and looked over the edge and about ten feet down on a small rock outcrop I saw that familiar heart shaped white face looking up at me. This owl had taken refuge in the only cavity or hole it could find. Not a great nest sight but a suitable roost. Recognizing it was vulnerable I back away thankful for the encounter.
Several years later again while hunting I stumbled upon, fortunately not in, this very mine again by accident . When I approached hoping to see the owl again, I was surprised to find that bees and taken advantage and built a large hive on the walls of the shaft. I again backed away slowly, this time for a different reason.
It was not until more recently I learned how for years farmers have utilized the Barn owl in sustainable agriculture. From orchards to sugarcane, rice and especially vineyards, farmers have put up Barn owl boxes to house as many families as possible to guard their crops against rodents.
I recently read an article that Martinellis, the sparking cider company, partnered with the FFA to build and place twelve barn owl boxes in a vineyard. With in a short time all twelve boxes were occupied with owl families and 100s of rodents were being taken each year as a result. I cannot think of a more sustainable safer way to control rodents. This can be a fun way for families of hobby farmers, homesteaders or just property owners wanting to control rodents, to enjoy a partnership with these amazing creatures.
Plans for barn owls boxes can be found on the internet for free if you are handy. If you are interested buying a ready made box I will include links for reputable companies that sell them. Some families have placed cameras in their nest box to watch the family grow. Two types of boxes are common, those that mount on a pole and those that mount to an existing tree of structure. Placing these boxes can be precarious as they must be a minimum of 10′ off the ground. A good plan or help from a contractor may be necessary in placing your box safely.
It has been almost two years since we placed an owl box made from pallet wood in the corner of our mini farm here in the suburbs of Phoenix Arizona. Though we have not had any takers yet things are looking promising this year and I will share in a future post and vlog if the vacancy sign can be removed.