January 16, 2019

A Reason to Give a Hoot

City mouse, look out! A researcher on the other side of the globe thinks he can end Los Angeles’ rodent problem for good — by putting barn owls to work.

Israeli ornithologist Yossi Leshem says owls operate more safely and effectively than spraying poisons, which contaminate groundwater and are toxic to pets. The key, he says, is supplying the owls, a natural predator, with the right habitat.

Leshem is not just crying fowl. In Israel, his research has been tested and found to work. For more than 20 years, Leshem has helped farmers at a bio-organic kibbutz practically eliminate hungry rodents that munch away at date plantations and vineyards. There, small wooden boxes about the size of a picnic cooler were hoisted into trees, where pairs of owls nested, propagated and were found to hunt thousands of mice a year.

Leshem intends to further test his methods in urban Tel Aviv.

The U.S. beachhead for his work is right here in Los Angeles at Milken Community High School. Under the auspices of principal Metuka Benjamin, students are adopting Leshem’s methods and will build and tend owl boxes by year’s end.

The connection is not purely coincidental. Philanthropist Lowell Milken, for whose family the school is named, has previously donated millions to fund a variety of Leshem’s research projects.

Local agencies respond to about 6,000 rodent complaints each year, the majority of which originate from suburban residential areas, said Frank Hall, chief of vector management for L.A. County Environmental Health. Of course, that number is a fraction of the likely rodent population. Hall expressed interest in Leshem’s work.

Leshem has calculated that an owl family can eat up to 2,000 rats and mice a year. And he thinks that the birds will flock to L.A. as eagerly as starlets: “Owls will definitely move into L.A. owl boxes, if built.”