The Santa Clarita Valley’s owl population has some new real estate options, as a number of owl nesting boxes have been set up in the city’s parks, open spaces and most recently in the community garden at Central Park.
“There’s approximately six owl boxes throughout the city that we have installed,” said Susan Nelson, city of Santa Clarita parks manager. “We have a couple out in our open space areas, and then we have three owl boxes at a few different park sites: One at Central Park, one at Circle J. Park and one at Canyon Country Park.”
The SCV is home to a number of owl species, including great-horned owls, barn owls, southern spotted owls, screech owls, long-eared owls, burrowing owls in the Castaic Lake area and even an occasional saw-whet owl, according to Ranger Frank Hoffman, head ranger and recreation services supervisor at the Placerita Canyon Natural Area.
Great-horned owls are the SCV’s largest nocturnal aerial predator and have been known to take everything from scorpions and insects to mice, rats, lizards, snakes and even mammals as large as an opossum or skunk, Hoffman added.
“They’re all meat eaters. They don’t eat fruits and vegetables of any kind — they strictly eat meat — and they are, for the most part, very near, if not at the top, of the food chain where they live,” Hoffman said.
They do so with their zygodactyl feet, meaning two toes forward and two back, which, along with the sharp talons at the end of each toe, provide a strong, powerful grip on their prey.
While those owls nest in trees, such as the ones where the owl nesting boxes are located, they, however, won’t be using them, as they often take over abandoned nests.
It’s the smaller barn and screech owls these boxes are trying to attract, as those are the ones that typically nest in a tree’s cavities.
As these owls’ natural habitat is taken by developments or fires, for example, the boxes provide the perfect home for the owls and their owlets, if placed in the right location.
Height, location and direction all matter when it comes to placing owl boxes, meaning it comes as no surprise that the community gardens’ first try was unsuccessful.
“We put them up a couple of years ago, but we never got an owl in them,” said Mike Faragher, chairperson for the maintenance committee at the gardens. “We took them down, and I built brand new ones.”
While the gardens have since seen owls in the area, they have yet to confirm if any have taken up residence in their new boxes.
Owlets learn from both parents how to be successful predators over the course of several months before going off on their own, Hoffman said.
These owlets are sometimes found as far as a quarter-mile from their nest, as fledglings are supposed to spend time on the ground (so unless visibly injured, if you find a baby owl on the ground, there is most likely no need to fear).
Owls, it turns out, are much more than a pretty face; they are also good for rodent control, Nelson said.
“The main purpose is to help to encourage natural predation,” Nelson added. “The idea of having owl boxes is to help naturally control rodent populations, since the owls are a predatory animal.”
Hoffman agreed, adding that not only are they a natural way to control the rodent population, but they also provide an alternative to poison, which can be extremely harmful to the local wildlife populations of hawks, owls, bobcats, coyotes and even mountain lions, as the poison travels up the food chain.
And they’re good at their job — a family of barn owls can consume 2,500 rodents a year — so much so that the city hopes to continue expanding the project, which is relatively cost-effective.
The first few owl boxes were put up as part of a local resident’s Eagle Scout project, but each box only costs approximately $50 in materials, according to city officials.
As spring kicks into full gear, more and more animals will begin to be spotted in the SCV, as they either migrate through or have babies.
Through the years, the Placerita Canyon Nature Center has become a sort of “way station” for animals in need of rescue, often providing care to injured animals before they are sent to other nearby rescues, who then evaluate if the animals are able to be returned to the wild.
Occasionally, the center is able to take in some of the animals for educational purposes, such as its two owls: Catori, a 9-and-a-half-year-old barn owl who has called the center home since 2011 when he was diagnosed with a neurological problem and unable to be released, and Sierra, an 8-year-old great-horned owl who has been at the center since 2015 when she was mangled in a barbed wire fence.
The SCV can often be considered a city along an “urban edge,” surrounded by forests and open spaces, which is why so many animals can often be seen visiting the suburban area.
That’s why officials say it’s important to be cognizant of the food left out as to not attract these animals, such as covering garbage cans and putting bird feeders away to avoid attracting rodents or other prey of larger predators.