The City of Mill Valley recently unveiled series of owl nesting boxes along the Mill Valley Golf Course in its latest campaign to reduce the use of pesticides in and around the course, part of the City’s long-term plan to make the 9-hole course a leader in environmental sustainability.
The six owl nesting boxes, designed by the Hungry Owl Project
in San Rafael and placed on wooden posts milled by Parks Supervisor Brandon Stewart, are now on display at the Mill Valley Golf Course.
“Brandon has been integrating a number of really innovative environmental initiatives at the Golf Course, and owl boxes are a big part of that comprehensive ecological approach that adds to the biodiversity of the landscape,” Recreation Director Jenny Rogers said.
The idea behind the owl boxes is quite simple: as made famous by the 1983 film “Caddyshack,” rodents – namely gophers and moles – can be a nightmare for a golf course. But the use of pesticides to combat a rodent problem is counterproductive, Stewart says, and harms those animals that prey on rodents and thus reduce their population naturally.
By erecting owl nesting boxes in appropriate locations, City officials hope to encourage these rodent hunters to help keep rodent populations in check as part of an Integrated Pest Management
approach. A Barn Owl family can consume 3,000 rodents in a four-month breeding cycle, according to Hungry Owl Project Director Alex Godbe, while “one poisoned rodent consumed by a family of owls could potentially wipe out the owl family and the potential to eradicate thousands of rodents.”
A critical piece in making owl nesting boxes work is to eliminate the use of any form rodent poisons in the surrounding area, Godbe says. The owl boxes were installed at the Golf Course on the heels of a survey of nearby residents to get a sense of the use of rodenticide in the area.
“Most of the people in the surrounding area were very encouraging and supportive,” Stewart says. “Most of them didn’t even use the rodenticides and if they did try to control pests, they did it by trapping.”
Promoting the use of owls for rodent control “can truly be a ‘win win’ situation,” Godbe says. “Landowners benefit from the pest control provided by owls and the owls get safe locations to nest and safe habitat to hunt.”
The owl boxes are the latest piece of the City’s drive towards sustainability for its Golf Course, a move first inspired by Stewart’s visit to a bio-dynamic vineyard in Ukiah, Calif., in late 2012.
“It made me want to change the way we did things at the Golf Course,” says Stewart, who has introduced native gardens, native pollinators and native birds to the course, further reducing the day-to-day management of the foliage around the course.
In May 2013, the City introduced "insectories," or gardens of plants that attract insects that prey on harmful ones, thereby reducing the need for pesticides. For instance, plants have attracted ladybugs that feed on sap-sucking insects aphids, well known golf course threats.
Over the past 18 months, Stewart has reduced pesticide use by 65 percent and restored natural foliage. He’s also reduced water use by instituting sound agronomic principles and monitoring soil health, coordinating with local tree contractors to harvest local redwood and cedar from our urban forest to salvage, mill and repurpose for parks projects such as stairs, bridges, fences – and the posts for the new owl boxes.
“What Brandon is accomplishing at the Golf Course is amazing,” says Public Works Director Jill Barnes, whose department oversees the maintenance of the course itself. “With the help of the neighborhood, he’s turned our great local Golf Course into a leading example of sustainability and environmental stewardship.”
Stewart reached out to Godbe in 2013. The Hungry Owl Project spawned in 2001 from WildCare, the wildlife rehabilitation center in San Rafael. Then-WildCare volunteer Godbe was alarmed by the number of owls and other wildlife coming into the hospital either sick or dead as a result of rodenticide poisoning. In 2012, 79 percent of raptors (owls, hawks, etc.) and other rodent-consuming wildlife that were tested by WildCare were found positive for secondary rodenticide poisoning.
Over the years, Godbe has worked with a number of golf course, homeowners associations, ranches and vineyards, mostly in Marin and Sonoma counties, to install owl boxes.
Since Stewart brought the project to the Parks & Recreation Commission last year, a number of donors, including Parks & Recreation Commissioners Kirk Knauer, Loren Quaglieri, Suzanne Bohan and Joan Murray, as well as Planning Commissioner Ricardo Capretta and Recreation Director Jenny Rogers, have each donated an owl box.
“This is a great educational opportunity,” Rogers said.