JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A young barn owl looks bug-eyed in curiosity as a bird handler readies it for a new life - to be spent hunting the rats that plague South Africa’s poor and mostly black urban areas.
The Township Owl Project takes juvenile birds rescued from perilous situations, such as when a building where they nested in is demolished, and gives them a new home and a new job.
Expertly clasping a metal ring onto the bird’s leg, handler Craig Nattrass explains: “The ring is purely there so if the bird is recaptured it can be identified and we can get statistical information.”
After he has finished “banding” the bird and two of its siblings, the trio will be released at a later date, most likely into one of Johannesburg’s townships.
More than 200 owls have been deployed like this over the past decade, according to Jonathan Haw, head of EcoSolutions, a private environmental planning company that has been steering the initiative on a pro bono basis.
Two species of owls have been used - the barn owl, which has a distinctive oval face, and the much larger spotted eagle owl.
Haw said barn owls are particularly suited to urban conditions because, as their name suggests, they have long been associated with human habitation.
This also makes them ideal for the control of pests such as rats because where humans go, rats follow.
“Barn owls and rats are inexplicably linked in evolution together,” Haw said.
The owls are released from sites such as schools, where “owl houses” are erected for them to nest. This gets children involved, creating awareness about the problem of pests and the role that predators can play in controlling their numbers.
Haw said schools are also ideal locations because they are quiet at night, when the birds are active and on the prowl. And rather than being located close to each other, each school has a “territory” - as do owls.
In recent months there have been “rat horror” stories in the South African media about children being attacked by the rodents which find ideal conditions in the overcrowded shantytowns that ring Johannesburg.
Measuring success is not easy but one way is to examine owl pellets at to see what the birds have been preying on. “They are definitely eating rats,” Haw said.
Aside from analyzing bird droppings, pest control results can be seen in other ways.
At the Marlboro Gardens Combined School on the edge of the gritty Johannesburg township of Alexandra, where an owl release took place in early October, principal Avril van Zyl said the flocks of mess-making pigeons that used to foul his playgrounds were now giving the area a miss.
“We still see them but not nearly as often as we did before the owls were released,” he told Reuters.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy