Attracting Owls To Your Backyard
You love your garden. You’ve spent all season cultivating it and your harvest will be ready soon, the fruits of all your labor the reward for your efforts. Just as you are preparing to reap your rewards, you notice that someone else has already stolen the yield. Insects have damaged the best parts and rodents have taken what was left.
The scenario is all too common and you want a solution. The first reaction for some people is to rush to the home and garden or grocery store to build up an arsenal of pesticides that will wipe out the offenders. Please don’t be so hasty to do so.
Pesticides, even those that target specific species, pose health hazards to everyone, including people, pets, and non-target wildlife or plants. It’s impossible to determine exactly who or what will be affected by your indiscriminate use of such products, especially as the compounds within will move several levels up the food chain.
Choose Natural, Organic, and Harmless Pest Control
Another reason to avoid chemicals designed to kill insects, rodents, and even weeds may be even more compelling. You may inadvertently be eliminating one of the most inexpensive, easiest, most natural, and frankly, most entertaining forms of organic pest control available to you: Biological predation. Owls in the garden provide natural pest control.
How Can Owls Help Solve Garden Problems?
Which Owls Should You Invite To Your Garden Party?
To help eliminate insects, slugs and snails, or small reptiles that munch on your plants, you might want to attract smaller owls, like Elf Owls, Flammulated Owls, or Screech Owls. Screech owls in particular are prolific hunters and are likely to keep your garden relatively invertebrate-free. They are also really cute, but that’s just a side bonus.
If your problem involves something larger, like rodents, larger reptiles, or even some species of birds, you might consider trying to attract a larger species of owl. Some of the larger owl species, like Great Horned or Great Gray Owls, while productive rodent-hunters, generally prefer more natural places, like rotted and hollow trees for nesting, so they might be a little bit more difficult to attract to your yard or garden unless you have appropriate naturally-occurring items already in your yard.
Most people don’t have the space or inclination for too much wild areas within the confines of their property but still want to reduce rodent populations. That’s why the focus here will be aimed more toward owls more likely to use and enjoy housing provided by humans.
Barred Owls, Boreal Owls, and Barn Owls are some of the species that eat larger prey and have been known to use man-made housing more readily. Barn owls in particular seem attracted to human-made structures, and therefore might be one of the more effortless larger species to attract to your garden. Barn owls also tend to have one of the widest ranges, making them a likely candidate for most locations.
Ethics First – Owl Safety
Any time we interact with the natural world it is incumbent on us to do so responsibly and consider the impacts we might be having on the wildlife. Therefore, although attracting predators like owls would be the recommended path as an alternative to environmental toxins, we must consider the ethics of doing so and try to mitigate them before we act.
It would be irresponsible and unethical to attract any kind of animal, including owls, to an area that might be unsafe for them, regardless of how much we might want to share our space with them. There are a few safety factors particular to owls that you will want to consider and alter when necessary and possible.
If the home or garden where you want to attract the owls happens to be very near a high-traffic thoroughfare that could potentially cross the flight path of the owls as they come and go at low altitudes, you may be inviting disaster for your feathered friends. It’s best to avoid attracting owls in this situation.
Obviously, if you are using poisons in your yard or garden, it’s not the most ideal place to attract any kinds of animals. People often assume that because the toxin is meant for one species, it will not likely harm another. The fact is that owls and other predators regularly die from preying on other creatures that have swallowed poisons.
For example, a rat that has ingested rodenticide can take a while to succumb to the toxin and while it is slowly bleeding out from the inside or reacting to neurotoxins within the poison, it is more likely to behave erratically and become low-hanging fruit – easy prey – for a watchful owl. The owl that ingests the poisoned rat will then be prone to secondary poisoning from eating the animal that ate the rodenticide.
Even if you do not use chemical pesticides in your home or garden, be mindful of what’s going on around you. If you are aware of any heavy pesticide use in your neighborhood, or if you live near a farm that may be spraying harmful chemicals on a large scale, it is best to avoid trying to attract owls to your general area.
Keep your yard and garden area free from all forms of netting if you want to attract owls. They can easily entangle and injure themselves in nets, so when trying to invite them to your garden, make sure nothing dangerous is left out for them. This includes sports netting such as soccer goals or badminton nets. Use them during the day and then store them safely after playtime is over and before the owls come out to hunt.
If you have large windows that may have reflective surfaces when the moon shines, you may be inviting disaster for owls. Do what you can to avoid collisions with large glass surfaces in flight paths that could potentially pose risks to any birds.
How to Attract Owls to the Garden
Once you’ve determined that your garden is a safe haven for your owl friends, you will need to make it inviting for them so they will want to come join your garden party. Following are some ways to provide a garden area that owls will find attractive.
Keep It Wild
It feels counter-intuitive to encourage nature to flourish in a place where the end game is to eliminate pests. More flora leads to more fauna. However, there is a method to the madness in the suggestion to allow for natural and organic matter to grow and pile up. A healthy population of prey equals a healthy population of predators, and the predators will naturally keep the prey under control. Owls will stick around to continue hunting if there is a steady source of food.
If you have the means, providing trees in which owls can perch for hunting and roosting will go a long way to summon your raptor invitees. Owls appreciate a variety of horizontal surfaces on which to perch, especially where there is cover so that they can avoid detection from prey or other predators. Trees are additionally beneficial to the general environment, so they provide value to your space.
Any waste that comes from regular yard and garden maintenance – not garbage, but actual organic materials – can be helpful for creating a hospitable environment for the prey that will attract owls. To keep your brush pile from attracting pests to your house, and to avoid being bothered by its unsightliness, keep it near the perimeter of your property, well away from areas where you reside.
Infrequent Yard Work
Speaking of yard and garden maintenance, allowing your grass and weeds to grow a little bit longer will encourage rodents and insects to feel more secure under cover to travel around in the yard more readily. Owls have keen vision and will be able to detect their movements in spite of the extra greenery. Less yard and garden work for you is a secondary benefit and the owls love it.
Nix Human Interference And Appearances
Too much human interference and activity will be a turn-off to owls and they will leave to hunt in greener pastures if they sense too much human presence. If you are hanging around trying to get close enough for photographs and the like, it will only serve to frighten your owl buddies away. Likewise, the trappings of human life can serve as discouragement to them.
Owls prefer to hunt in near-or-total darkness, so the human tendency to want to light up a yard will be a discouragement for them and keep them from hunting in your garden. Lights can confuse an owl and make hunting a frustrating experience. They can also make owls feel unsafe. Lights can be a major deterrent to owl activity.
Avoid keeping lights on much past dusk, even if those lights use a motion detector because the owls will set off most motion detectors. If you feel insecure without lights in your yard you might consider researching weatherproof infrared motion detectors that can distinguish movements of larger figures like humans from smaller ones, like owls.
Keep pets inside at night when owls are most likely to be awake and hunting. Pets will inhibit owl activities in several ways. First, they can startle or frighten owls from hunting in the areas where you want them to hunt, and secondly, they might keep prey from running around, limiting the options available to the owls. With enough activity from other animals, the owls will seek better places to hunt.
Additionally, small pets like petite dogs and house-cats can fall prey to attack from larger owls. The best bet is to keep them indoors at night for their own safety and for the success of your owl-attracting quest.
Recorded Owl Calls
Some people feel the need to try to attract owls with recordings of owl sounds. The best advice is to avoid doing so. It’s unnatural, and can cause confusion and disruption for the owls which could mistake the calls for the presence of competition and could even distract them from hunting or nesting activities. Such recordings serve to agitate more than they attract.
People have been known to try to provide food directly as a means for attracting owls. Please resist the temptation. First of all, directly feeding wildlife is against the law (with a few exceptions), and for good reason. Wildlife, including owls, can become accustomed to accepting food from humans and then become dependent on them for survival.
Secondly, creating an unnatural environment with plentiful food for a single species upsets the local ecosystem and is generally a bad idea. Do not offer dead mice or other meat, as owls need to hunt their food naturally. Likewise, do not release a cageful of rodents for them. It’s simply artificial and wrong to provide the food rather than assisting in attracting it naturally.
Human-Made Items to Provide
As a generality, owls get most of their nutritional fluid needs satisfied with the prey they eat, but like other birds, they do appreciate a good water source as a supplement, both for bathing and for an occasional drink after hunting. This can be especially helpful during hot weather or in hot climates.
Ideally, a bird bath will be far enough from view of most human interference to avoid scaring off the owls, but will have plenty of fresh, clean water available. Also important for most of the larger owl species is a deep basin (at least two inches deep, but a little bit deeper would be preferable) with sloping edges for the owls to ease into the water gently.
Owl Nesting Boxes
Perhaps the best and most effective way to help owls feel welcome in your garden is to provide them with a place to nest and rear their owlets. An owl house or owl nest box, strategically placed in or near your garden, can encourage the owls to stay around your yard all year around, so that they do not feel the need to go elsewhere when nesting season comes around.
Owls tend to be early-season nesters, so it is recommended to have a home available for them by January or February. Again, depending on the type or size of owl you would like to attract, ideal conditions and house size might vary a bit, but the general idea is the same for most backyard cavity-nesting owls that accept artificial housing.
Where To Source An Owl Nest Box
It is possible to find nest boxes online with a quick internet search, and if you have a specific kind of owl you are more interested in attracting, simply adding the species name to your search will help you find exactly what you need. There is a wide variety of choices available.
Your local chapter of the Audubon Society may be a good resource to help you find owl nest boxes appropriate to the kinds of owls local to your area. Also, scouting groups love projects like building appropriate housing for birds, and reaching out to one of these organizations might yield some great results.
If you are more inclined toward a can-do, do-it-yourself kind of attitude and you would like to build your own owl house, multiple sources exist with plans and relatively easy instructions on how to do so. For example, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology provides free plans that you can download.
If you would like to make your own house, but perhaps you don’t have the power tools or skills to do all of it, prefabricated kits are also available for purchase online. This is the middle-ground approach and you will still have a feeling of accomplishment when you finish.
Important Features For An Owl House
Of course, the size will vary, depending on the size of the owls you would like to have nesting inside, but generally, it is good to provide enough space for two adults and up to 12 nestlings, allowing for their growth to the size they will be when they begin flying.
Nest boxes for owls are usually square or rectangular in shape with an entrance hole that is appropriate for the size of the owl. You don’t want the entrance hole to be too large, or it won’t provide proper shelter and also makes the occupants more vulnerable to outside interference from predators, even including larger owls.
Obviously, an entrance that is too small would keep your owls from entering with ease. For the most part, a six-inch opening is ideal for barn-owl sized guests, while an opening about three inches in diameter is perfect for screech owls.
Another important feature is a roof or side with hinges built in so that the box can be opened for cleaning during the “off-season” when owls are not nesting. The more inviting and fresh their nest box at the beginning of each nesting season, the more likely the owls will take up residence there when the time comes to prepare for laying eggs and rearing their young.
Speaking of fresh and clean, providing a slim opening the length of one side of the floor for the owls to push out their debris will help them stay healthy and happy throughout the season. Likewise, ensure there are holes drilled into the bottom of the box to allow water to drain out and it won’t puddle in the case of a spring rain shower. A few holes in the wall near the roof are also recommended, to provide some air circulation.
A small overhang from the roof can further prevent too much water from coming in to turn your owlets into “moist owlets”. Additionally, some metal flashing around the entrance hole can help prevent predators from enlarging the entrance hole to gain unlawful entry through chewing. This is not necessarily essential, but it adds an extra layer of security for your owl friends during their most vulnerable season.
A final feature to complete your owl nest box is to furnish it for them. Do not put a perch inside the box – those are best left outside, in close proximity – but you can provide a cozy bed for the new eggs and later, the owlets. This prevents eggs from rolling around and gives the chicks a nice, soft cushion for nestling in.
Owls do not naturally line their own nests, and tend to use whatever materials are already in the nest for their bedding. As they often reuse abandoned nests from previous seasons or the hollows of rotted trees, this will often consist of leftover bedding from the previous residents or plant matter that has collected in the nest over the off-season. For a human-made nesting box, wood chips and sawdust can fill this role nicely.
Where Should You Place An Owl Nesting Box?
Placement of your owl house is at least as essential to success in attracting owls to your backyard as the style of the house. Nest boxes for larger owls should be placed 15 to 20 feet off the ground with the opening facing in a way that shelters it from inclement weather. If you are placing your house for smaller owls, mounting to a tree at a height of 10 to 12 feet should also be acceptable. Either way, a south-facing entrance is recommended for warmth.
Additional Location Concerns
Please ensure that the nesting box is completely stable to prevent any kind of movement. Owls will not stay in a box that is does not feel secure, so any detectable movement will discourage them from taking residence.
Another consideration is the flight path leading to the entrance of the owl house. If you ensure the flight path into the entrance is clear, the parent owls will feel more secure when they are off hunting that they can quickly return to their owlets in the case of any kind of trouble.
Final Tips Regarding Nest Boxes And Nesting Season
Nesting season for owls generally runs approximately January or February through July. Be sure to get your nest box up and ready for your owl friends before the beginning of the season. You can prep it as soon as the last of the brood leave the nest in the summer, but you have through the end of the year to get it finished and ready for the next occupancy. Most recommendations say to have it ready by January or February at the latest.
Preparation means cleaning, replacing, or repairing the box from the last season. The earlier you clean your nest box, the less likely it will be to become infested with pests or bacteria before the return of its residents at the beginning of nesting season.
Speaking of pests please be sure to monitor your nest box in between nesting seasons so that invasive species such as starlings do not take up residency. Such an event could spell potential disaster, as it is tough to evict these murderous invaders. Squirrels, raccoons, wasps, and other birds might also find the box attractive, so it’s recommended to check fairly often to ensure your owl house remains a home only for your owls.
Be aware that nesting owls can bring some side effects with them, so if you have sensitivities, you might consider making alternative plans. If you will be bothered by the presence of their waste, for example, consider locating your owl nest box somewhere around the perimeter of your property, well away from your house.
Likewise, you should be aware that a nest full of owls can become a bit loud and cacophonous. This is especially true when there are a bunch of babies competing for their parents’ attention and feeding. Barn owls in particular have a very loud and shrill cry that is not for the faint of heart. A good pair of earplugs to aid your nighttime slumber might be a good purchase.
Finally, although it may be tempting to look in on your garden guests’ family from time to time, please resist the urge. Disturbing the owls will only serve to disrupt their parenting and in fact, disrupting nesting owls is illegal in the United States.
However, the law should not be your only motivation. After all, you wanted to invite these beautiful raptors to your yard to help you ward off the pesky invertebrates and rodents that were decimating your garden. Maintaining your hospitality throughout the year will help ensure that your buddies will return to assist you in those endeavors season after season.
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