Why We Use Owl Boxes at Quady Winery
By Allison Quady
Driving to the airport last month for an evening flight I saw a white owl, a barn owl, perched on top of our driveway speed limit sign. Towering 20 feet above the owl was the owl box built approximately 20 years ago to provide habitat for these fabulous animals. About the size of a house cat but weighing only about a pound, the barn owl is a ferocious hunter. Barn owls kill approximately one to two gophers a day, or 10 to 12 during brooding season. In a year’s time a barn owl family might eat 3,000 gophers! Watching this owl, I hoped that it had a family up above and wished it happy hunting.
Barn owls patrol our vineyards at night. Not only our estate vineyard, but all of our growers’ vineyards who have certified their land sustainable with the California Winegrowing Alliance. We have an enormous gopher population in the San Joaquin Valley. Our winemaker sets traps for them, catches them, and takes them off the property, but the main source of rodent control is the owls. We don’t use any rodenticide, and we do lose some vines to gophers, but the benefit to the environment outweighs these losses. When rodenticide is used to kill gophers and other rodents, it kills them over several days, and during this time, the rodents return to eat more and more of the poison. When an owl or other bird of prey (or even a pet) catches a rodent with so much rodenticide in its body and then brings the rodent back home to the nest, it can carry a lethal dose to owlets as well as to adult owls.
We have three owl boxes on our 9-acre homestead where my parents’ home, our estate vineyard, and our winery are located. They stand tall at the edge of the vineyard; one of them is amongst the trees my Dad planted when we were kids, in a wild oasis of green and garden. One box you see when you enter the property, by the driveway, and one is at the back edge behind the winery and bordering a neighbor’s newly planted pistachio trees. Putting up these big wooden posts and topping them with simple little owl dwellings signals to the owls that they are welcome, that this property is a haven.
I hope that we can spread the satisfying practice of building owl boxes throughout the Valley. The barn owl is in decline in our region, but it doesn’t have to be, there are certainly enough gophers to go around! You don’t need a vineyard to invite an owl, or another raptor into your property. If you live in town there are smaller birds of prey you can support with habitat, or if you are in a rural area, an owl box could be for you. Check out this birdhouse building tool to find the right house for your area. Maybe the most important change you can make is to think twice before killing those terribly pesky gophers and other rodents in your garden with rodenticide, and decide to invest in a birdhouse instead.