By Chris Besler
If you live in the Colorado foothills, chances are you’ve encountered the pesky voles and pocket gophers, or at least the mounds and trails of devastation they leave behind in yards, fields and pastures. Once established in an area, they are difficult to exterminate, and cannot be easily convinced to take up residence somewhere else. It’s not impossible, but eradication typically requires a multi-prong attack and lots of persistence. Many have waged this battle with a variety of weapons – traps, sonic devices and rodent baits – with limited effectiveness. Despite this, consumers continue to use toxic pesticides that contaminate the water supply and pose a health hazard, particularly to children and pets.
Don’t despair! It’s time to call on the Vole Patrol! Neighborhood barn owls can decrease the need for toxic remedies by acting as a natural and safe control for rodent pests. Realtors and Affiliates at the Mountain Metro Association of Realtors (MMAR) have joined forces with our local barn owls to help homeowners eradicate the troublesome rodents by building and selling barn owl nesting boxes, providing habitat for this native raptor species.
Voles and pocket gophers are common throughout our foothills community, wreaking havoc with networks of tunnels and a ravenous appetite for plants, especially flowers, shrubs, bulbs and our vegetable gardens. Vole damage in lawns and gardens can be identified by their extensive runways, small holes, damaged plant roots and yellow wilted plants. Pocket gopher damage can be identified by their fan-shaped mounds.
Voles resemble a mouse, with a round, stout body; gray or brown fur; short legs and tail; a blunt nose, tiny eyes and fur-covered ears. They are 4 – 7 inches long, including the tail, and are also known as field mice, or meadow mice. Pocket gophers are larger, growing to 5 – 13 inches, with long bodies; tan to almost black fur; external cheek pouches; a short hairless tail and large whiskers; clawed front paws and two yellowish colored incisor teeth. Although pocket gophers have a typical life span of less than three years, and voles only 2 – 6 months, they are prolific breeders, with pocket gophers producing multiple litters of 3 – 4 individuals, and voles producing 5 – 10 litters per year with 3 – 6 young per litter!
The good news is that barn owls are also abundant in the Colorado foothills, and they specialize in hunting small ground mammals. The barn owl is one of the most wide-spread of all land birds, standing about 12-15” tall, weighing 15-20 oz. and having a wingspan up to 42”. Their feathers are a beautiful blend of browns, white and grays, and they are most easily identified by their heart-shaped white facial disk.
Many different habitats are home to the barn owl, but they are most common in open grasslands and sparse woodlands. They usually roost by day in tree hollows, cavities in rock outcrops, barns and old buildings, and a variety of man-made houses. Despite their large numbers, they are rarely seen since they are generally nocturnal, hunting silently at night, and can best be spotted when they emerge at dusk, or in the early dawn on their way back to the nest to roost.
With its extraordinarily sensitive hearing and eyesight, the barn owl is a specialist in hunting small ground mammals. Voles, pocket gophers, mice and rats make up the majority of its diet. Over a whole year a pair of barn owls and their family will eat several thousand of the pesky rodents! Their roosts are also home to the nests, where they lay their eggs and hatch 3 – 6 fledglings once a year in late spring and summer.
Now is the ideal time of year to put up a nesting box, to attract the barn owls and hopefully get some help controlling the voles and pocket gophers. Boxes can be placed in trees and a variety of structures such as barns and silos, or mounted on a free-standing wood post or metal pole. It may take a year or more, and one or two nesting cycles for the owls to move in, but once they’ve discovered a box, it will often be used year after year. The boxes can be purchased through any Realtor or Affiliate member of MMAR, and help is available for choosing a good location and mounting the boxes. Net proceeds from all box sales will be used to place boxes on public lands and open spaces, and donated to local charities. Happy hunting!