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Growers find barn owls protect their crops


June 10, 1997
Web posted at: 9:28 p.m. EDT (0128 GMT)

From Correspondent John Zarrella

MIAMI (CNN) -- Sugar cane growers in the vast Florida Everglades Agricultural area tried for years to rid themselves of the North American Barn Owl.

Now they're inviting owls back.

Growers used to think the hunters were a nuisance, leaving behind a nasty mess in barns, silos, pump houses and on equipment. But now the messy pellets provide clues to the owls' newfound popularity.

"The owls generally swallow their prey whole, and they'll digest the flesh, the muscle, the meat of the animal. And then they'll regurgitate the remains of the bones and fur of the animals," said University of Florida professor Richard Raid.


For Raid and his protege, high school student Jeff Klein, the pellets are proof the birds may help solve a major problem for the area's sugar cane growers.

The problem? Cotton rats and marsh rabbits that attack the 430,000 acres of Florida cane fields at night. They munch down on the sweet stalks, causing more than $30 million in damage a year.

On top of that, growers spend from $5 to $10 an acre on chemicals to try to kill the rodents.

"Maybe nature offers one of the best answers ... the barn owl," Raid said.

Scouring through old barns, Raid and Klein found out what the pellets signify -- that an owl eats about 1,500 rodents a year.

John Zarrella reports from Palm Beach County, Florida
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But the Everglades Agricultural area is an old swamp, with few trees and structures to encourage the birds to nest. So, even though growers now want the owl around, "the owls really had no where to go," Klein said.


The answer is installation of bird houses designed especially for the owls. The plan is to put as many boxes as possible, to help grow the owl population.

"We want to know exactly -- are these barn owls having an impact on the rodent populations? How many barn owl nesting boxes do we need to have in an area of land to have a significant impact?" Raid said.

The idea is to find out how best to apply nature's own pest control system on the wing to help protect Florida sugar cane crop.


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