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Petaluma rodent mitigation plan introduces owl nesting boxes to city parks

Gophers have to eat.

That’s hardly news, but because gophers happen to eat flowers and chew up tree roots, destroying turf and wrecking lawns, their voracious appetites make them one of the most destructive species of burrowing rodent known to landscapers, gardeners and public parks managers.

Fortunately, owls have to eat too — and they do enjoy gophers.

That is why, since early March, the Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department has been installing owl nesting boxes in parks and sports fields on the east side of town. There are plans to add more on the west side in the fall, assuming the first phase of installations does the trick. Hopes are high that it’s already beginning to work. Cindy Chong, Petaluma’s Parks & Facilities Maintenance Manager, said the owls are already beginning to move in.

“There is some scratching on some of the boxes, near the entrance of the holes, at the Petaluma Community Soccer Fields, one of the places where we’ve installed the owl boxes,” she said this week, adding that similar scratch marks have been seen at least one of the two new boxes at nearby Wiseman Park. “The condos now officially have residents. We’re really tickled that it seems to be working out.”

Owl boxes are a common form of rodent mitigation in many vineyards and ranches in Wine Country, where — according to Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue's Barn Owl Management Project — a permanent family of owl box residents can catch and consume up to 25 gophers per night. Barn owls can be choosy about where they live, though, and an abundance of available food is just one of the factors they look for. A good owl box will have an entrance hole of about 6 inches, just right for a barn owl but too small for a great horned owl, a natural predator of barn owls. The owl boxes should also include a drainage hole of some sort, where the bird can kick out unwanted debris, including feces and, of course, rodent bones.

Working within those parameters, city parks staff made a trip to Friedman’s and built each of the boxes from scratch, with plans underway for more.

Generally speaking, owls look for places to lay their eggs between late February and mid-to-late July. In other words, now is a good time for Petaluma to be installing new nesting spots.

In addition to the three boxes at the soccer fields and the two at Wiseman Park, city staff have placed one each at Arroyo Park, Fox Hollow Park, Lucchesi Park and the Kingsmill urban separator. Two more have been built and will be installed in the next week or so. Now that Chong and the parks crew know that owls are finding the boxes, they will wait to see if it has the anticipated effect on the Petaluma’s public gopher population.

“We do have a lot of gophers in our parks, and we’ve been trying to figure out a way to deal with them for years,” said Chong. “They’re cute, though, right? When you see them poking their heads our of holes, they’re kind of adorable. But they are incredibly destructive.”

Added Chong, “My staff has a lot of longevity here, working in these parks, and when they came to me recently and said, ’The gopher problem is getting bigger and bigger every year,’ we brainstormed for a while, and finally they suggested the owl boxes. From the research we’ve done, it’s pretty clear that when owls nest in parks, the rodent problems there often go away very quickly.”

Noting that there are similar boxes at the Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, and others at Shollenberger Park, Chong points out that one such box at Ellis Creek contains a camera that is occasionally turned on to stream the activities of any owls inside.

“We might put a camera in one of our boxes eventually,” she said. “That would be really exciting, so we’ll look into it.”

Though mitigation of rodents was the initial reason for the owl boxes, now that actual owls are starting to movie in, Chong says that she’s hoping the project will give those who live near the parks a chance to see owls flying and hunting. Having worked for a number of years at Sonoma State University, where a large barn owl was a regular sight on campus, she knows what it’s like to see an owl on the prowl.

“We’d see it every morning,” she said. “Owls are really majestic. When you see them flying, they are so beautiful, but you also know you don’t want to be that close to them, right? They are predators. They will defend themselves. That said, owls in flight are just one of the most beautiful birds you will ever see.”

The species being nocturnal, the best time to see an owl is at night, or early in the morning just before daybreak, that’s when you can get a chance to see owls flying.

“So now, we’re keeping our fingers crossed that plenty of owls are going to want to take up residence in their free new homes in Petaluma,” said Chong. “We feel very positive right now. It’s pretty cool to see nature in action.“

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