Being an Owl Mother.

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I fell in love with birds of prey a few years ago while I was still a Game Ranging student. I don’t have a great eyesight so I was glad that I only had to familiarize myself with large-sh birds that would be easier to identify later. I soon found favorites in the Bateleur Eagle whose name means tight rope walker, the Gymnogene now called the African Harrier Hawk, the Lammergeyer also known as the bearded vulture and the common spotted eagle owl. I found that I did not want to persecute them for hunting my warm bodied cousins as I would persecute fellow human beings that do the same as the birds. In my modules I leaned of birds of the night, the Owl and the Night-jars and all the larger sized birds of prey of the day, from hawks to harriers, kestrels to falcon to kites, snake eagles to eagles to vultures and everything in between.

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Bateleur Eagles at Raptor Rescue

We fast forward to a month ago when I got the opportunity to look after a pair of barn owls, rescued after falling through a chimney at Midmar Dam. I was way more than excited, mind you I did not know of any stereotypes attached to witchcraft except for those in the Harry potter movies. I only knew of the owls full of wisdom from the movies that I watched during my childhood.

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Leftovers from owls.

It felt like I had opened a can of worms into the creepiest of worlds where witches hollow out the bodies of owls and give them an enema filled with Muthi to turn them into their own personal zombies and where diviners use the eyes of the murdered birds to grind into a mixture that leads them to seeing far into the future and through the darkness of human misery.

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But like all problems the owls are not the true culprits, we are the ones that dump rubbish illegally inviting the rats, where there are rats there are snakes and we hate the snakes as well even though the earth belongs to all those who live on it. Besides, we cannot except to inhabit the planet alone with the animals of our choice, that is against the true balance of nature and if we believe that witches commit such marvels, they should be able to commit them with whatever animal they wish.

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Pellets regurgitated by owls.

One of the strangest questions I received while spreading the, “owls are our friends” message was, “How will people tell the difference between the zombie owls and the project owls?”  This was tough to answer but I have never seen a zombie owl and neither had the person asking so it was safe to say let us speak only of the owls we have seen and know.

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Regular visitors.

The owls being of a predatory nature meant that I had to feed them a day old dead chicks. The first time I was confronted with the task, I found it quite daunting as they looked like they were still moving while I walked with them thawed in the plastic bowl.

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Day old chicks.

With more days passing and the same task repeated I grew immune. A while after their meal, each owl would regurgitate a pellet made of feathers and bones, sometimes the head of the chick would be in a pellets on its own still whole. My dogs Trevar and Sapphire tried to dig holes to gain access to the cage in the middle of the night to no avail though.

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Gugu at her favorite spot.

Now that the owls have been released, I have to admit that I do miss them. Even my mother who was septic at first warmed up to them, she was afraid of the screeching sound they make but Siphiwe and Gugu did not ever screech at night while they were in Captivity. The neighbors were delighted to have them around and kept checking on their well-being daily. Baba James Mlotshwa said he had so many rats in his yard that he wished they could circle over his house every night catching them.

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Kids at an owl talk at a Thembeni

We would like to extend gratitude to N3TC, Owl Box Project, Predatory Bird project and Raptor Rescue, this would not have been possible without them. We hope the pair breeds and more generations carry on the rodent eating legacy.

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Birds of Prey in action.

We have been working closely with Mpop Kids Club and the Enviro Champs as part of the Owl Box Project. The DUCT Enviro Champs held an activity day where existing knowledge about owls was investigated. The children had to fill in worksheets with various questions relating to owl knowledge. Aphelele Mkhize wrote that she was afraid of owls and she would scream if she saw one, while Amahle swore he had seen one on a rocky outcrop in broad daylight one day. Later everyone enjoyed a presentation where they got to watch videos of owls catching rats and mice, learn fascinating facts about owls like how soft their feathers are and get to ask the itching questions they had in the end many fears faded.

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After hosting a fabulous, successful water festival in the past month, the DUCT Enviro Champs had some prize money which they were glad to spend on the Owl Box Project by having an inspiring trip to the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary. The sanctuary is home to many raptor species that are indigenous to Southern Africa, they try and give injured or sick birds from different historical circumstances all the help they need to get in a condition where they can be released back to the wild and all the birds that are homed in the centre are unable to survive on their own in the wild if released.

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A fish Eagle in Captivity

We had a self-guided walk around the many enclosures housing different species some big and some small. We all loved the residents of Hoot Hollow, where owls resided, the most. Mzwa Mokoena was fascinated by their silent flight, the way they can turn their heads 270˚, “They have more bones in their spines than humans and did you know that the male hoots twice and the female replies with three hoots?” he asked.

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A Grass Owl
We were treated to a flight display by Orion the long crested eagle, who has white distinctive windows on his wings that are seen during flight followed by YBK a Yellow Billed Kite that was not able to join the migration to Kenya, East-Central Africa. We closed our eyes to hear an owl fly and all we heard was a small swoosh before he landed on a perch, their silent flight and camouflage abilities make them to appear spirit like because they are not easily seen.

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Most of the raptors we saw caught food with their feet first, except for the little goshawk which has shorter wings and a longer tail and catches food with its beak. The cutest was the little wood owl, the female is called uMabhengwane and the male is called uNobathekeli in isiZulu.

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Belinda with the cute little Wood Owl

Vulture feeding was interesting, we learned that the Cape Vultures were not fighting over food but helping each other tear it apart. Next to the vulture enclosure was a pair of juvenile Beaded Eagles, they are Red Data species and there are only about 320 left in the country.

 

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A juvenile Bearded Vulture

After the excitement we went to the lower Mpushini River where Pandora Long told us the story of how she watched the river die slowly since she was a young woman until its fatality when a farmer dammed it upstream about a decade or so ago.

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We also took a walk along the dry river bed and had a picnic lunch around the fire. We finished off by going to Rick and Emma Hackland’s Aloe Farm in Bishopstowe.  It was originally a rose garden which they found requires a lot of water, they then tried a patch of aloes and found them quite suitable, numbers of different species of aloes have since taken over with very few fragrant roses remain.  Everyone had a great time posing for photographs amongst the aloe flowers. ”I wish I can have this rose in my bedroom, I have never smelled a rose as sweet”, said Amanda.

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Learning more about the owls has changed the perspective of many people, there is much enthusiasm for the Barn owls that will soon be residents in Mpophomeni.  People are asking the big question, “Ziza nini iziKhova safa amagundane?”

Enemies from above coming for the Rats

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Owls are beautiful, interesting creatures that hunt at night and are characterised by their flat face with forward facing eyes. There are twelve different known species in South Africa, the smallest weighing in at 50 g and the largest at 2.5 kg. The three most common in the Midlands are the Barn Owl, the Spotted Eagle Owl and the Wood Owl.  All owls have specially designed soft, fluffy wings that allow them to fly silently while listening out for prey, their tubular eyes are light sensitive allowing them to see their prey in low light conditions while sounds are bounced off their facial disk into little ear holes at the sides of their face and the rats don’t know what hit them until their hanging on that bill.   A family of owls can eat 2500 rats and mice a year.

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After hearing the successes that Eco-Solutions has had in Alexandria township in Johannesburg introducing owls to reduce the rat problem, the Mpophomeni Owl Box Project is to be launched to fight our troublesome rodent infestation that has grown over the years due to a decline in their natural predators. Orphaned or injured owls are taken in by the Raptor Rehabilitation Center, nursed back to health and released back in the wild, deployed to feast on the rodent population restoring balance between predator and prey.  Many people in the community will testify that the infestation is out of hand, it’s only by luck that we don’t hear of rats chewing off the feet of sleeping infants but they do destroy food in the gardens and cupboards, mutilate furniture and, let us not forget, that they carry a multitude of diseases.

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Prevention is always better than cure they say, so we would like people to work with us in eliminating areas that could lead to the rodent population thriving. For example, piles of rubble next to your home and careless disposal of food scraps in the open attract rats.  We should stop treating vacant land as illegal dumping sites because we are only providing the rodents with a habitat to flourish in. We should also avoid using poison to kill the rodents because other domestic animals and little children are also in danger of ingesting and dying from it.

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Rats feasting on rubbish.

A release site will be erected at a private home in Mpophomeni this winter. This is facilitated by The Owl Box Project and Raptor Rescue Centre and funded by N3TC.  Local residents and learners will be invited to visit and educated on the importance of owls in eradicating the rodents. The owls nest in boxes that resemble their natural nesting habitat.  Barn owls nest in cavities, they like dark, quiet places so a big box with a small hole is ideal. Spotted Eagle Owls are not fussy they like open areas so a big box with a wide entrance is home for them and Wood owls live in forests and nest in holes in trees so they have along box with a small hole so that the can crawl all the way to the back. Barn Owls can alter their breeding habits in response to prey numbers, the greater the prey in abundance, the greater the owlets.  We already have a few owls resident in Mpophomeni.

A Barn Owl caught on barb wire
A Barn Owl caught on barb wire

Many owls sustain injuries and death due to colliding with razor fences, electric line and motor vehicle collisions. If you see or find an injured owl, try putting a towel or something over it before you pick it up, because they do have sharp beaks and proceed to call FreeMe (033 330 3036) or Raptor Rescue (076 724 6846) who have trained people to handle sick or injured animals.

This is a joint project of MCG, DUCT Enviro Champs, Midlands Meander Education Project and Funda Nenja and, of course, the Owl Box Project.