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If humans could overcome the urge to damage the environment and learn to co-exist with nature, a powerful collaboration that presents a win-win future could be achieved.

This was said by Jan van Niekerk, a member of the City of Johannesburg Pest Control Task Team and Region A’s Operational Manager Auxiliary Services, as he spoke about the Barn Owls experience in Ivory Park and the bird’s role in fighting rodent infestation.

“This is our second experience with Barn Owls. To date we have relocated 11 owlets in Ivory Park. We’ve also helped to dispel the myths about these amazing birds. Not only have we educated our colleagues, we have also embarked on educational campaigns in local schools with amazing outcomes,” said van Niekerk.

On both occasions – the most recent being six months ago when Barn Owls nestled inside council buildings at Ivory Park – the Pest Control team was asked to find alternative accommodation for the owlets.

“The guys collected a few old pieces of wood and built a box. It was inexpensive. We then removed the owlets from the roof, placed them in the box and hung it in a strategic area.”

“The first time, there were six owlets. This time around we had five. But as you can see, two have flown off to establish their own bases and we’re left with these three six-month-old chicks, which could be out of the box soon,” said van Niekerk.

The ultimate goal as far as rodent control is concerned is the reduction of the use of harmful rodenticides by focusing on the restoration of the natural ecosystem by re-introducing natural predators.

After the first experience with Barn Owls in 2011, all the City of Johannesburg’s pest control team members were sent to the Johannesburg Zoo to be trained on the handling of owls.

“Once they received training, they were deployed to Midrand Primary School and Hope Faith School as well as Halfway House and Rabbie Ridge community clinics to conduct information sessions with learners and patients about the benefits of owls to the environment.

Barn Owls hunt at night and have excellent eyesight and hearing and can catch prey in total darkness. Their soft feathers and large wingspan enable them to fly undetected, which gives the impression that they are able to appear out of thin air.

Unfortunately these unique characteristics have given rise to superstitions that have resulted in them being killed for “muti”.

Barn Owls may catch up to two rats an evening, which adds up to 730 rats a year.
Van Niekerk emphasised the barn owls experience in Ivory Park formed part of Region A’s Integrated Rodent Management Strategy.

“Owls alone cannot win the war against rodents. The releasing of 11 owls into Ivory Park won’t make a huge difference against the ever-increasing rat infestation in the area.

“The best method is prevention. If you can deny rodents water, food and shelter, you have won the battle. When we deploy the Pest Control Team, we sensitise communities about the need to keep yards clean. People can plant trees, put up perches and make owl boxes. We also work with Pikitup and Johannesburg Water in our integrated approach to pest control,” van Niekerk said.

“But we’re winning the battle by slowly changing people’s attitudes towards owls. Owls can’t hurt or kill you. They’re just nature’s way of taking care of rodents.

Large scale rodent infestations such as those occurring in our informal settlements will always need an integrated rodent control strategy which consists of a series of management evaluations, decisions and controls.

A few weeks ago, Member of the Mayoral Committee for Health and Social Development Councillor Nonceba Molwele unveiled a R2,5 million integrated rodent management plan – which included the use of barn owls – in Alexandra to fight rodent infestation in the township.

This followed reports of an infant who had three of her fingers and part of her nose chewed off by rats. There had also been reports in recent years of babies being attacked by rats, some of them reportedly as big as a cat.​​​