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Owls in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

By Sami Backleh

This Week in Palestine

August 2005

Owls, along with eagles, falcons and vultures, represent a group called raptores: birds that are distinguished by hard and sharp talons on their feet for catching prey and hooked beaks for tearing it apart. Thus they occupy the top level of the food web. This means that they are not a common food source for other consumers, and are without constant natural predators.

Owls are birds of prey that are especially adapted for hunting at night, displaying a variety of fascinating features and behaviours. Their nighttime existence, for example, makes it easier for them to hunt mice and other small mammals that are also active at that time. This is due to their large eyes that enable them to gather more light, providing them with excellent night vision in dim light conditions. Apart from that, owls are also blessed with a highly developed sense of hearing. Experiments have shown this sense to be so effective that barn owls, for instance, can locate prey in total darkness by hearing alone.

Culturally, folklore and superstition surrounding owls have been passed down through the centuries from the times of the ancient Greeks to the present. The perception of owls is a paradox. Owls have been a sign of fear and a symbol of death and evil in many cultures in the world, yet they are also known as a sign of intelligence, wisdom and knowledge in others. Many nowadays are starting to realize the benefits of owls and their vital ecological benefit.

The barn owl, for example, can be very useful for humans regardless of the negative image that is associated with it. The most important role for barn owls in society – both environmentally and economically – is for biological pest control: using natural predators for controlling the pest population. Rodents such as rats and mice constitute one of the most damaging groups of pest animals in the Middle East. With artificially elevated populations in agricultural areas, rodents have been estimated to consume up to 35% of the world’s crop production. Rodenticides are not effective and are problematic and costly. They have a short-term effect, requiring repeated applications, and eventually rodents become bait-shy. In addition, rodenticides have a severe negative impact on the environment. They pollute the soil and water sources, damage the ecosystem, and have secondary poisoning effects on wildlife and humans.

The typical barn owl’s diet is 96.5% small mammals. Studies have shown that a barn owl family of two adults and their young ones can eat as many as 1,000 small mammals in the three-month period in which they raise their young ones in normal conditions. This insures great efficiency in controlling pests in a cultivated field.

In Palestine, due to continuous education-awareness campaigns held by a few groups working in the field of environmental education and supported by the Palestine Wildlife Society, some farmers have been advised to attract the barn owl to live near their fields as a natural predator by installing nesting boxes for it. This technique can be seen in the Jericho area, where the barn owl has its habitat in the Jordan Valley. Hence, Palestinian farmers nowadays are directing their efforts towards conserving and appreciating the owl as an important and beneficial element of our natural heritage that is worth conserving.

Sami Backleh is a freelance wildlife researcher.

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