December 5, 2017

Tyto Alba Rodent Warriors

Farm News

There is a problem in my orchards that is literally growing with the trees. At first, I only noticed evidence of this issue here and there. But in the middle of the summer, I was driving by my fig orchard and noticed that an old tree—which was fine in the spring—was dead. In an orchard filled with lush green fig trees, this one was completely brown. I knelt down at the base of the fig tree, and I could see that a little animal had eaten a thin layer off the bark, all the way around the tree right where the trunk met the soil. The tree had been girdled to death. The vital movement through the bark that connects the roots to the leaves stopped. Voles!

Voles (or meadow mice) are little rodents that live in the soil and eat vegetation. A damaged tree here and there is something I can tolerate, but these little guys are building a vole civilization in my orchard, and evidence of their communities can be seen in tree after tree. Some just started, others halfway and a few all the way around—yielding dead trees.

Every non-organic farmer has a simple solution to this—poison. But that is not an option for my farm. We started disking more, hoping the little guys wouldn’t want to be without the cover of grass. We picked on the gophers too, yet all of our effort yielded no success. This is a problem.

It would be amazing if somehow I could find an army of creatures to search out and destroy the proliferating population of gophers and voles which are hurting my orchards. What would they look like?

As part of a conservation project on a wild area of our farm with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service and Point Blue Conservation Science, I was given a statistic about Tyto alba that made me wrinkle my nose and look up to get my mind to crunch some numbers. Over a five-month breeding period, an adult Tyto alba will eat approximately 165 rodents, and each of its chicks will eat 152 rodents. If a pair of these rodent warriors produces an average of three Tyto-alba-rodent-warrior-chicks, that is about 786 rodents over a five month period. This left me with two questions. One: Just how many rodents are out there? Probably a lot more than I realize. Two: How long would it take me to get rid of 786 of my arch nemesis? Probably a lot longer than five months.

Tyto alba – the common barn owl. Now the task of building an army. It doesn’t appear to be that difficult to do, and it is a lot more cost effective that putting human beings on the payroll. How many do I need? UC Davis says that 1 box for every 3–4 acres is at the high end—I am going to start by putting one per every five acres of orchards and see what happens.

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Tyto Alba Photo Credit