by Jerika L.H.
The Hungry Owl Project is campaigning in full swing to remind the community of the impact that rat poison has on local animal populations. Many people use rat poison to rid their homes of unwanted critters with little or no knowledge on the dire outcome this can have for local wildlife.
In fact, putting out rat poison might even be strengthening rodent populations over time because it ultimately begins to kill off the rat’s natural prey. When a rat ingests poison, it takes several days for it to take effect and die. In that time, the rat becomes weakened and is even more susceptible to predators.
When they are picked up by a bird of prey, the animal absorbs all of the poison and brings its back to its young. Once the rat has been digested, the poison starts to do its damage on the adult owl and its babies. Scientists have noted that animals who ingest the poison second hand often bleed to death from stomach hemorrhages – a particularly slow and painful way to go.
The active chemical in the anti-rodent products is an anti-coagulant which prevents an animal’s blood from clotting. As rat poisons are becoming extra-potent in recent years, they have been responsible for the rising death toll of countless unintended wildlife.
In 2012, 79.1% of raptors (owls, hawks etc) and other rodent consuming wildlife that were tested by our local wildlife hospital, WildCare, were found positive for secondary rodenticide poisoning.
Researchers from Canada, the United States and Europe indicate that the newer class of rat poisons, like Havoc, Talon, Contrac, Maki, Ratimus and d-CON Mouse Pruf, are killing a variety of wild animals, including mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, skunks, deer, squirrels, possums and raccoons, along with bald eagles, golden eagles, owls, hawks and vultures.
Many of these are the natural beneficial predators of rats. As their numbers begin to thin, rats are able to populate with less threat and increase in numbers, thus making rat poison counterproductive in the long run. That is, while rat poison might kill a rat in one dose, it prevents the natural predation that keeps rats from becoming overpopulated. In fact, according to the Hungry Owl Project, a single poisoned rodent can kill an entire owl family. Every dead owl is replaced by hundreds of thousands of rats.
Apart from just owls and other wildlife, domestic animals often fall victims to this painful cause of death. UC Davis-trained veterinarian Ilana Zuckerman can attest to the unintended dangers of rat poison and the impacts they have on our beloved pets. “Rat poison is a huge problem in small animal emergency medicine. It is sweet and meant to attract the parasites but attracts dogs and cats as well. We have treated numerous cases this summer already, some from eating rat bait from a box and others from eating animals that have been poisoned then crawl into the pet’s yard. The owners often don’t notice right away so we see them when it is too late to do anything.”
As of now, the only effective intervention is prevention. The Hungry Owl Projects seeks to inform people about the importance of seeking natural remedies as opposed to store-bought solutions that threaten the environment.
Alex Godbe founded the Hungry Owl Project in 2001 after an eye-opening internship at a Marin County-based Wildlife and Rehabilitation Center, where she was shocked to learn of the number of owls suffering from poisoning after eating rodents that had been exposed to rodent poison. She was inspired to educate people about the counterproductive nature of rodent poison, since many people don’t realize that a simple and convenient $10 drug store purchase could lead to the demise of hundreds of unintended animals.
Godbe expands, “A family of Barn Owls in a 4 month breeding cycle can consume up to 3,000 rodents. Along with the fact that any owls that survived the secondary poisoning were being released back into the same unsafe habitat, I decided I wanted to do something. The Hungry Owl Project was ‘hatched’ with a mission to educate the public about the devastating effects that rodent poison plays in the environment, as well as provide solutions that includes encouraging beneficial predators like barns owls to provide a natural means of effective low cost pest control. The human impact on wildlife is well known, whether it is the global mass habitat loss or the pollution from chemicals we spew out or from the indiscriminate use of rodent poison, herbicides and pesticides – the question is how can each one of us help reverse these threats. It can be as simple as a choice to go ‘green’ whenever possible. Look for safe alternatives for weed and pest control, join conservation groups to protect local habitat, leave parts of your property wild. Protect the trees that provide habitat for many nesting birds including hawks and owls. Encourage beneficial predators like barn owls to your property for rodent control by installing nest boxes. “
Yolo County is home to a number of owl species, predominantly barn owls and great-horned owls. The local barn owl population in Davis was last estimated to be in healthy numbers, despite an alarmingly steep global population decline. This is likely due to the extensive volunteer work of numerous local conservation groups, ornithologists, and concerned citizens. You may have noticed the abundance of large wooden boxes perched in trees around downtown Davis.
This effort was made as an attempt to provide adequate artificial nesting cavities – a task that the Hungry Owl project also undertakes in rural areas. The majestic owls have even become a highlight of the community, as many enjoy seeing them nest or soar overhead in search of a snack. Interestingly, barn owls are able to zero into the location of prey in total darkness because of their immaculate hearing.
The barn owl was often historically regarded as a white ghost due to its silent manner of flight, although it has been known to give off the occasional screech. Its eerily quiet movements allow it to hear the slightest sounds made by its rodent prey hidden in deep vegetation while it is flying several feet overhead.
Alex Godbe notes that we have all the reason in the world to be enamored with our local owls. “These amazing little birds have been the farmer’s ally for hundreds of years. The important role of these owls along with other owls, hawks and other predators play in the environment is crucial for a natural and safe balance. Protecting them helps maintain a healthy planet and essentially ourselves.”
For more information on the Hungry Owl Project, or to join local efforts in owl conservation, please visit www.hungryowl.org