The Canadian Peregrine Foundation

Owls and their nest boxes are exterminating pests at wineries
April 2, 2007
JOEL D. AMOS - For the North County Times

ESCONDIDO ---- In the ecological world of vineyards, the delicate balance between success and the failure of a crop can easily shift from good to bad by a scourge of menaces ---- rodents and insects.

Dotting the landscape of the San Pasqual Valley's Orfila Vineyards are large house-like boxes sitting atop enormous poles. Inside finds the protector of the harvest ---- the basic barn owl. Head winemaker, Leon Santoro, has witnessed the bird of prey's master the pest problems.

"The evidence is on the ground around the boxes," he said. "You see the rodent's bones."

The round faces of the barn owl are their distinguishing features and through the natural mating process, an owl ---- and extended family ---- can protect a vineyard for generations. Ten years ago, Santoro put up three of his own boxes with modest success. When Tom Stephan, a bird of prey expert and owl box builder met Santoro, he sold the winemaker his next set.

"The ones we built look more primitive," Santoro said. "His has much better wood and is professionally put together. It's such a great idea."

When he is asked if the process works, Stephan's reply is consistent. "I know it will work," he said. "The laws of nature require it."

Santoro's passion for agriculture and nature began with his first time running a vineyard in Napa Valley. Wanting to remain ecologically friendly, he called the U.S. Department of Fish and Game to get their input into his budding business. "They showed me how you can develop a vineyard and still be ecological," Santoro said. In 1991, Santoro saw opportunity once again to reduce his winery's ecological imprint on the environment. "Here's my chance to go organic. We couldn't go 100 percent organic, but in terms of rodent eradication, I knew I could."

As Stephan periodically checks on Orfila's owl boxes, over the last year, he noticed a single owl by the winery's driveway. Every other box was filled with parents bearing eggs. Initially the owl, thought to be a female, upon closer inspection was determined that it was a single male owl. "I thought why not place a singles ad? Single owl, free room and board," Santoro said. "I have a sense of humor."

It is illegal to purchase owls, so one must arrive naturally, a prospect Stephan said he is certain will happen. "Nature will take its course," he said.

"They'll be one in there very soon. This spring, all the boxes will be full."

"I hope so," Santoro added. "You see, I'm impatient. We've had owls here for years and I'd like to see more. For owls, this place is heaven."

The Orfila Vineyards wine club calls itself the Orfila Wine Lovers. Established in 2005, as staff was compiling materials for their new program, someone noticed the acronym-O.W.L. "We can tie it in with the owls in the vineyard. This is all by coincidence. We are all not that bright. This was not part of a marketing plan."

Stephan's success with his owl boxes has him believing the work could be full-time in the near future. "It's approaching 65 percent of my income.

I'm thinking about dropping everything else and just putting up owl nest boxes. I do it right and want to do nothing else," he said.

Twenty-five years ago, when it was only a hobby, Stephan worked for San Pasqual Vineyards with his falcons ridding the area of starlings that were eating the Chardonnay grapes. Now, as it is known as Orfila Vineyards, he has returned to the same site where his avocation became a vocation. "It's funny it should come full circle," he said.

In an era where the population is driving toward natural living, Stephan sees the benefits of his owl boxes on several levels. "They're neat animals to have. It's a good natural history lesson. When their feeding young, there is nothing that can compare with them for getting rid of pests."

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