There are many species of birds that are overlooked in the Iberian Peninsula. Often only those with striking plumage or melodious song seem to attract attention. Well, game species also attract great interest from the hunters!
Today this is even more so as humans have distanced themselves from nature. In reality, it is less that they go unnoticed, as I said at the beginning; more that many people are not interested. Most of the population is more concerned with being up to date with the latest technologies, having very active and attractive profiles on social media and spending a weekend in rural accommodation where there is no rooster noise nor mud on their boots. This actually benefits in some way many species, which are sensitive to disturbance, although they have other more serious problems such as poisons and hunting. It has to be said though, that the declines of some birds began when humans were more in contact with nature, starting in the 1950’s. In those years, hunger and superstition put many animals in the spotlight. Some for being considered vermin, others for being suitable for consumption and others because it was believed that they were related to witches, demons and other evil beings. In this last group, there were many of the animals that began their journey with the arrival of dusk. When people feel vulnerable and take refuge in their homes for shelter; the wolves, marten, toads and owls.
Among these animals is the Barn Owl. This bird has been close to us humans since ancient times, it has lived in our villages, attics, barns, churches and tirelessly controlled the plagues of mice and voles that ravaged our crops. However, it was haunted by stories related to superstition.
The inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula related it to the devil and thought that it entered the churches to sip the oil from lamps and thus leave the saints in the dark. In addition, it has always been believed by the inhabitants of towns and villages, that if an owl sang on the roof of a house, someone in it would die, as the following saying goes “When the owl goes to the place, big or small has to be carried.”
For these reasons, the Barn Owl has always been hunted. Although before continuing I must say to superstitious people what I always say. My father was born in a village in Lugo (Galicia) with 26 houses, a school and a church. In this school he always raised the owl and it sang every night over most of the houses and no one ever died from this.
Back to the present day, our Barn Owls have also encountered the following issues:
• Poisons and rodenticides
• Cars on fast roads that cause collisions.
• Loss of habitats for roosting and reproduction – the single most biggest issue.
In Andalucía, except in some areas of Doñana where it maintains good numbers, the Barn Owl has experienced a marked population decline, to such an extent that in many municipalities, where it was always seen hunting over houses at night, there are no specimens today.
Until the mid-1980s, in and around the city of Cabra there were around 12 localized breeding pairs. They nested in the air chambers of some schools, in pigeon houses of country houses, in holes next to the railway (today Vía Verde) and in one of the churches. In 2010, only one individual was seen away from the breeding locations. The schools had coveredtheentrancestotheairchambers to prevent the pigeons from entering. The country houses were renovated by eliminating the old dovecotes or they ended up in ruins. The train track, today converted into a Greenway, has great pressure from walkers and the churches, they have done the same as the schools, they covered all the gaps. Therefore, in a silent and relentless way, our barn owl has been disappearing. The government body assigned to protect this and other species, the Administration, seems not to be interested. Perhaps the owl does not have the appeal of the Lynx or the Imperial Eagle?
Nine years ago Explora Natura, together with two Nature Associations and a group of volunteers, decided to try to help the species, manufacturing and buying nest boxes and also developing a hacking project to release some specimens and thus reinforce the population of the area.
This has been a journey full of illusions, good times and bumps in the road.
We were excited to think that we were doing our bit to help the species. We saw how older people asked us how “our” Barn Owls were doing and even told us that they had seen them in this or that area and also how young people were enthusiastic about helping to feed them or making nest boxes for breeding. Even an education center gave us all its support and offered us its facilities.
We have had a great time watching the owls leave each year on their first flights. To see how they flew over our heads and wondering if it could be one of the released specimens or, why not, some descendant of them.
But we’ve also had our fair share of problems. As in all projects, in the beginning there were always many people collaborating and working, but after a few years, the work ends up falling on two or three people. We have to thank individuals, the Educational Center, the Cabra City Council and of course the Andalucía Bird Society for their invaluable support.
From them we have received food and the acquisition of nesting boxes.
But to us at Explora Nature it is inexplicable how, despite working with a protected species, which is under threat (more than is believed), the Administration does absolutely nothing. There is no aid for food, there is no visit to inquire about how the project is going and they only limit themselves to collecting the report that is sent to them annually.
It should be remembered that an owl eats between two and three mice a day and that they spend around three and a half months in hacking facilities. This means that it eats about two hundred mice during its stay and there have been years in which we have had up to 14 owls present so their maintenance is a considerable expense to us.
This year, between the administrative uncertainties caused by Covid19 and a lack of empathy for the species from those who direct the Environment section, we were not able to carry out our hacking project.
“Project Alba” will have to wait until next year to try again.
Antonio Pestana – ABS member