A Better Mousetrap

I was talking to a member of staff from The Owl Sanctuary this weekend, and was pleased to learn that unlike so much of our wildlife, native British owls aren’t classified as threatened.

Barn owls (globally, the most widely distributed species) have endured some difficulties as a result of the widespread use of poisons put down to deal with rodents (it being a very short hop up the food chain from there to those that prey upon them), and the intensification of agriculture is another problem, with hedgerows having been pulled up as farms became more mechanised.

Another problem that owls face is quite bizarre: that of being bought by the parents of Harry Potter fans. (In my day it was terrapins, sold irresponsibly to kids who liked the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These were then abandoned in the local pond a few months later.) Presumably the Hedwig Effect is a hazard that will reduce in the years to come. It’s strange that you don’t need to have any kind of permit to buy or sell our native owls; anybody can do this… but that’s an issue you’d have to take up with your Member of Parliament.

Harry Potter, and hedwig

Not so magical: Harry Potter and his snowy owl, Hedwig

Barn conversion is all the rage, of course, and changing ramshackle farm buildings into fashionable houses presents something of a housing crisis for the humble barn owl, but they prove to be surprisingly adaptable.

Enter the warehouse owl: not a distinct species, but more of a response to the changing British landscape. If you have a big shed such as a warehouse or aircraft hangar, and the doors are regularly left open, it may well have been colonised by these refugees from Harry Potter fandom.

The first sign of them will probably be a pile of their droppings in a quiet corner. That might seem like a nuisance, but what are those droppings made of? Dead rodents. It’s a pretty decent quid pro quo really: allow some owls to occupy a corner of your roof space, and you don’t have to worry about all that tedious business with mouse traps, poison and so on, over quite a wide site area.

How neat is that? An organic solution to the problem of pests in your facility, at no cost whatsoever, other than an occasional need to sweep up their regurgitated pellets and guano, a free supply of ‘soil improver’.

Barn owls

Sitting pretty: could this be your new pest control division? [photo: ‘HeBi’]

The idea of the ‘warehouse owl’ as an emerging species is charming, but incorrect: it’s a phenomenon of etymology, and not one of genetics. Manmade structures such as barns have only existed for the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Before that, barn owls had to make do with trees (less popular in the rainy British isles) and caves. Indeed, elsewhere this bird is known as the church owl or cave owl, and by a number of other names. There’s no reason to assume that they won’t be called warehouse owls, someday – and this piece from Alaska shows that great horned owls are getting in on the act, as well…

I love the symmetry of this: a better mousetrap, self-replicating and self-limiting, taking care of a known pest while having virtually no impact upon business activities.

If only everything in the supply chain were this simple!

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