Nature Calls: Barnstormers!

17 October 2016 - 10:12 By Claire Keeton

Kelly Sekgota feared owls before she started hand-rearing a pair of barn owls at her school on the edge of Alexandra . "I was scared of the myth that owls were used for witchcraft, but I found out they were friendly birds," said Sekgota, a pupil in Grade 9 at Marlboro Gardens Combined School - one of 63 schools in Gauteng to take part in the Township Owl Box Project.Alexandra now has more owls than nearby Sandton.The initiative benefits urban wildlife and the people because owls catch rodents, which spread disease and plague residents.There nocturnal birds of prey get secure roosting boxes on school grounds and more than 88000 students have learnt about the value of barn owls in the environment through the project.As Sekgota says: "My friends thought I was weird, but they are getting it. The owls help us catch lots of rats."Project co-ordinator Kefiloe Motaung works with students, teachers and principals to prepare them for owl releases at their schools.Her team brings them a pair of young owls in a pen. They must be fed for 21 days while they acclimatise to their new environment.Every week they assess the owls to see if they are ready for release and an owl box is put up in a tree or on a pole close by.Ideally, the owls will mate and roost in the boxes. During a recent release one of the pair flew onto the school roof and the other straight into the owl box.Michael Mokgaua, 14, said he had heard owls were evil, but he has discovered they were "just regular birds".Barn owls, a pale species with a distinctive screech, have "nice big eyes and are beautiful", says student Razzaaq Sharmar.Idah Chueu, 15, thinks the project is cool. "The owls are sweet and I've realised the many folk tales about owls are just a lie."Molefe Motlhabane, 14, said his family was grateful that he was "doing something for the community".Teacher Motlatsi Zulu started the project after seeing a programme on preventing young people becoming juvenile offenders.She says: "They found that people who were in jail had often been abusive to animals, so this programme targets young people to look after animals."The infestation of rodents in Alex was her other motivation to invite the owl project to Marlboro Gardens Combined School."I took about 10 learners and they were trained to feed the owls in the morning and afternoons. They loved doing it and looked forward to it."She first saw the owl boxes at Waterfall Country Estate, north of Johannesburg.Waterfall Country Estate supports the original urban owl box project, which was started by Jonathan Haw, in his initiative to control pests without poisons in residential areas.In the suburbs, spotted eagle owls are most likely to move into the boxes and on a sunny morning we saw Hussein Moyo ringing three owlets on a balcony in the Waterfall Hills Retirement Estate.They were still fluffy, but hissed fiercely at Moyo and his assistant when they picked them up.Moyo rings the owlets before they fly so that Haw can monitor the owl boxes and their populations.Haw, the founder and director of EcoSolutions, said that many of the species driven out of cities were now gradually making their way back into built-up areas.Genets and insect-eating bats are examples of this trend.He says: "Johannesburg has a hearty population of genets and their numbers are increasing every year and the same urban environment which is attracting owls is attracting certain types of bats."..

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