UC Considers Owl Box for People’s Park Rat Problem

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 09:50:00 AM

People’s Park might not get a free clothing box any time soon, but an owl box is more than welcome, especially if it acts as a rat patrol. 

A drastic increase in rats in the 2.8-acre UC Berkeley-owned community park just off Telegraph Avenue in the last month has resulted in university officials brainstorming ideas to control the rat population. 

Although the proposal to use the barn owl (Tyota alba), the City of Berkeley’s official bird, to get rid of the rodents is still being discussed, the university’s director of community relations, Irene Hegarty, said Monday that she was open to volunteers putting up an owl box in the park to see if it yielded positive results. 

“The rat problem comes in cycles,” Hegarty said. “It was not that bad a year earlier, but it is noticeably worse now. They love the agave and the food scraps in the park. We did some careful baiting in certain places—the kind of baiting that is not poisonous to cats and dogs. But with that all you are doing is reducing the population. You are not getting rid of the problem.” 

The university also brought in pest control to exterminate the rodents, Hegarty said, but the rats made an aggressive comeback soon after. 

Devon Woolridge, a UC Berkeley Office of Community Relations staff member, who is in charge of maintaining the park, said that, although he couldn’t give an estimate of the number of rats in the park, there were clear signs that the rodents were thriving there. 

“The reason it became such an issue is that we began to see rats during the daytime,” he said. “We can’t do much about it at night, but I saw rats moving back and forth between the agave plants early in the morning. No one was bitten or hurt but they make people uncomfortable. Some of them are six to seven inches long—and that’s just the body—and it’s a bit scary.” 

Woolridge said that he usually spots the rats scurrying across the park before university employees arrive around 8 a.m. every day to pick up the trash. 

“We have been asking groups such as Food Not Bombs, who bring food to the park, to clean up after they leave,” Hegarty said. “But sometimes people will take a plate of food from them and leave it anywhere in the park.” 

James Reagan, a homeless advocate who spends a good amount of time at People’s Park, agreed that there was a sudden infestation of rats in the park. 

“More rats than you can shake a bag of cats at,” he said. “The compost pile and Mario’s kitchen next to the park have certainly created a big colony.” 

Hegarty said that the new compost bins at the park were higher up from the ground than the old ones and had chicken wire to ward off scavengers. 

Most Berkeley residents and environmental activists who heard about the university’s plan to use barn owls to control rats said it would act as a nontoxic alternative pest control. 

“It is an ecological, nontoxic way to a balanced ecosystem,” said Terri Compost, a community gardener. “The barn owl is a magnificent animal whose population is in danger. They can be extremely helpful in keeping down populations of mice, pigeons and rats. Having owls as neighbors could also help humans in a paradigm shift to understanding the benefit of encouraging diverse healthy ecosystems rather than trying to annihilate all species that dare to live near us.” 

Compost said that she had seen rats in the community garden at People’s Park, a small plot of land where she spends a good amount of her time gardening. 

“There have been rats in all community gardens I have worked in,” she said. “The problem is when they get out of balance, which seems to have occurred this year. Perhaps rodentcide has killed their predators; perhaps it has just been a favorable climate year for rats. Providing housing for owls could be a great solution.” 

Hegarty said that although an owl box was one way to approach the problem, it was not foolproof. 

“An owl may not nest in the box or it may nest in the box once and never again,” she said. “We have other birds of prey, such as hawks, that come into the park and attack rats, but they do not eliminate the problem. The best way to address the problem is to not have food lying around for them and not have the kinds of ground cover that attract rats, like ivy. Even then, we will have to bait from time to time.” 

Lisa Owens Viani, founder of Keep Barn Owls in Berkeley, said it would be worth giving the owl box a try. 

“Barn owls eat hundreds of rodents every week,” she said. “I think it is a great idea. But it is critical that the city or university not use any poisons when an owl box is put up. Otherwise, it negates the whole effort, because owls and hawks eat poisoned rodents and die.”