Owls are majestic birds, their haunting call the stuff of fairy tales and myth. Praised by farmers for their role in controlling destructive rodents, owls glide and swoop over Lodi vineyards, returning each morning to rest in the owl boxes specifically set up for them.
But some of those owls never make it home. Ten of the birds were electrocuted in San Joaquin County last year — four of them meeting their maker in the Lodi area, according to officials with PG&E.
The company asks that farmers refrain from putting owl boxes on power poles, saving them a lot of trouble and the birds some unnecessary shocks.
“Sometimes you’ll see very horrific things where their feet will be burned very badly or burned off,” Bret Stedman, manager of the California Raptor Center, a branch of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
The owl electrocutions may be due to the close proximity of owl boxes to, or even on, PG&E power poles.
PG&E spokesperson Nicole Liebelt said the company is dedicated to protecting the environment. They’ve partnered with the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, to provide growers in the area with alternative owl boxes and alternative poles that can be put up on ranches — far away from power lines.
“When owl boxes (are present), there are higher incidents of owl electrocutions,” said Mike Best, the bird protection program manager at PG&E.
Electricity runs through some power lines at 12,000 volts. If an owl happens to be sitting on a transformer lid and makes contact with one of those wires, the odds aren’t good it will survive.
After the electricity has passed through an owl’s body, the biological response might not always be immediate, but once tissue starts dying, the results are almost always fatal, Stedman said.
Owl electrocutions aren’t just a bad end for the birds; the loss of wildlife harms both farmers and homeowners as well.
Joe Valente, the vineyard manager for John Kautz Farms, said owls are an integral part of the pest management system, keeping rodents such as mice and gophers in check.
And when a bird gets electrocuted, especially a bigger bird like an owl, it can actually cause the transformer to fail, shutting off power to surrounding homes and costing PG&E anywhere from an estimated $500 to $2,500 to replace it, Carl Neilsen, a consultant for PG&E, said.
Barn owls at a glance
Scientific name: Tyto alba, meaning “white owl.”
Wingspan: 41 to 47 in.
Weight: Up to 1.3 lbs.
Average Lifespan: 1 to 2 years.
Prey: 95 percent of diet consists of rodents.
— Source: California Raptor Center.
Contact reporter Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato at firstname.lastname@example.org.