Napa Wildlife Rescue, Gasser Foundation team up to use owls, not poison, to kill rats

Napa Wildlife Rescue, Gasser Foundation team up to use owls, not poison, to kill rats

Environmentalists and developers, often on opposite sides of issues, have found common ground in south Napa to remove rat poison from the local ecosystem and help protect wildlife.

Napa Wildlife Rescue, which annually cares for hundreds of sick, wounded and orphaned birds and animals, convinced the Gasser Foundation — which has been responsible for much of the recent commercial development west of Soscol Avenue — to stop using poisonous traps on its many properties.

The Gasser Foundation also built nesting boxes to attract Barn Owls in the hope of fostering a non-poisonous method for rodent control.

“What’s cool about Gasser, an organization that’s prestigious and been around for a while,” said John Comisky, Napa Wildlife Rescue’s vice president, is that once they realized the problem with the poison, “they took care of it.”

John Stewart, the foundation’s property and project manager, said Gasser moved away from using rodenticide because it is “about doing the right thing in Napa.”

We want to “make Napa a better place to live,” said Stewart. “Less poison in the environment is a good thing.”

The alliance between the two organizations began when local resident Rusty Cohn noticed a rodent trap near the ATM he uses at the Gasser Building on Soscol.

Cohn, who photographs and monitors the beavers living in Tulocay Creek, had heard about the impact of rodenticide on the environment, and how it can spread through the food chain.

“The problem with [the poison] is the rodents eating that stuff, they don’t die instantly,” said Cohn. “They get weak and get caught by hawks, foxes, coyotes, people’s pets” that eat the rats and ingest the poison, too.

“It’s just nasty stuff,” said Cohn of rodenticide.

Comisky, whose organization is spending more time these days educating the public about poisons and other human impacts on wildlife, said the dynamic of predators eating poisoned rodents “actually escalates the poison up the food chain.”

To combat this problem, the environmental advocates employed a chain of communication to get Gasser to stop using poison.

After seeing the traps outside the Gasser Building, Cohn told Comisky about them. Comisky, in turn, told one of Napa Wildlife Rescue’s board members, Carol Poole, who knows Joe Peatman, the Gasser Foundation’s president, and informed him about the use of poison outside his headquarters.

Peatman instructed Stewart to take action.

“I think we would rather put up with the rats than kill owls, hawks, coyotes and foxes,” said Peatman in an email to Stewart.

Stewart contacted the foundation’s exterminator, and told them to remove the rodenticide on Gasser properties.

He then went a step further and did some research on natural ways to control rodent populations. Namely, Barn Owls.

The flying predator not only eats rats and mice, but quite a lot of them, according to the Hungry Owl Project, a Marin County ecology group that urges businesses and consumers to avoid using rodenticides like brodifacoum, which causes “secondary poisoning” of predators that consume rodents.

The Hungry Owl Project’s website says Barn Owls “are superb hunters with voracious appetites.”

“A single Barn Owl family can consume 3,000 rodents in a single 4-month breeding cycle,” states the group’s website.

Stewart used the Hungry Owl Project to learn how to build Barn Owl boxes, which the birds will inhabit and call home.

A craftsman with his own wood shop, Stewart built eight of the boxes himself. “I was more than happy to do it,” said Stewart.

Once the rainy season is over, the Gasser Foundation intends to install the boxes in the flood plain behind its headquarters, and along the Vine Trail near In-Shape.

“We can hopefully attract owls and have them doing the job” of rodent control, said Stewart.

Comisky said he was thrilled with the Gasser Foundation’s willingness to stop using poison, and go in a eco-friendly direction.

“They not only switched the poison out,” said Comisky, “what they’re doing is facilitating the population of predators around their properties, which should do a better job overall.”

Comisky said putting up the boxes will be a smart move for the environment and for Gasser’s operations. Barn Owls don’t “take vacations, they’re there seven days a week, and they don’t ask for raises,” he said with a laugh.

Stewart said he thinks “it would be cool to have owls living around here” at the Gasser building, as well as near his own property.

“I have horses, chickens, goats, all that stuff at home,” said Stewart. “I’m going to put one of these owl boxes up in our pasture and see how it works.”

Both Stewart and Comisky said they wanted to tell this story to better inform people about the dangers of rodenticide, and the alternatives for dealing with rats and mice, so that the idea might spread in Napa and beyond.

“I hope it [the story] attracts a lot of community attention,” said Stewart, “and that other people will follow suit.”