Public Comment

Commentary: Rats, Owls, Pets and Poison, By: Lisa Owens Viani and Donna Mickleson

Tuesday March 14, 2006

We couldn’t help but notice that just a few weeks after Joe Eaton’s Daily Planet piece on barn owls in Berkeley, there have been two front page stories—March 7 and March 10—about the rat infestation in Willard Park.  

Understandably, neighbors, parents of young children, and Willard students are worried and want to see the rat population vastly decreased.  

At first we thought that baiting with poison was going to be used as one of the strategies, but upon contacting the officials in charge, we learned that they are following the city’s Integrated Pest Management policy, and would only use poison “as a last resort,” and with written advance notice. 

They have temporarily closed the Willard Park Tot-Lot to allow for removal of wood planks which provide harborage, and they are trimming plants, installing more rodent-proof trash receptacles, and as of Monday, March 13, have already trapped close to a dozen rats. 

This news made us very happy, since poisoning rodents can kill or seriously injure not only owls and hawks (from eating poisoned rats) but also dogs and cats. Just the other day we witnessed a distraught dog owner paying an emergency visit to the vet—the dog had almost died from eating rat poison.  

It also made us proud to be residents of Berkeley, which uses a more enlightened approach. 

And it gave us hope that the city might also try out another idea we think could be a really exciting and educational “win-win” part of the solution.  

As researcher Bruce Colvin was quoted in Eaton’s article, barn owl nestlings can consume their own weight in rodents each night! Our group, Keep Barn Owls in Berkeley, has been working to protect the thriving population of barn owls Berkeley has, and to increase their numbers. We find it amazing that barn owls have been living in Berkeley for several decades, and we would like to keep them here. 

To encourage these remarkable rodent-eating machines, farmers in the Central Valley have put up nest boxes in which the owls can raise their young and catch the rodents that eat the farmers’ grain. We, too, can take advantage of these marvelous — and natural — rat-killing machines. 

Barn owl nest boxes (available through the non-profit Hungry Owl Project) are carefully sited and designed and safe for fledglings, which all too often fall out of the palm trees chosen by their cavity-nesting parents, who lack barns or the old-growth trees they might otherwise choose. 

We’d like the city to erect a “pilot” nest box somewhere in Willard Park. We realize that this more ecologically friendly approach will take time. So it’s important to note that it is utterly compatible with all the other approaches to the problem city staff and exterminators are currently using. 

We think it would be exciting to try and to see if owls do come and join our efforts as free rodent-control agents! And there’s a bonus, too: Anyone who joined the impromptu evening gatherings on California Street near Allston Way last spring and summer, observing the barn owl parents sallying forth to catch and feed rats and mice to their young, will know how exciting and educational having these interesting creatures in our city can be. 

In Central Valley and Berkeley schools, children are studying owl pellets in science classes-an activity that engages kids who are often bored with less hands-on types of science. You’d be amazed how much they know about owls and the (mostly rodents) that they eat! 

We’ll bet before long some of those Willard neighbors and parents might find themselves on a wonderful local “field trip” that provides far more than pest control. 

For more information about barn owls and how to provide habitat for them, please see our web site ( and that of the Hungry Owl Project (