Gophers may be cute, with their fuzzy faces, long whiskers and tiny ears, but their powerful teeth and claws sure do wreak havoc in an orchard. They’re one of the many pests that we discourage from living on the farm using an approach known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
What is Integrated Pest Management?
The University of California defines IPM as “an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties.”
With IPM, we aren’t simply reacting to pests like a game of whack-a-mole (no pun intended). We’re looking at the farm holistically and creating long-term plans that keep our orchards healthy. Attracting predators like owls is part of that plan.
Putting owls to work
Back to the gophers. They tunnel underground and have a voracious appetite for tree roots. They prune the roots and have been known to pull the seedlings into their burrows. They can kill a new tree with a limited root system in an hour, Farmer Al says. Older, more established trees have more extensive root systems, but gophers can and do cause damage to these trees as well. Gophers have also been known to damage irrigation systems.
The owl is one of the gopher’s predators. So about 20 years ago, Farmer Al put up owl boxes to attract owls and give them a safe place to nest on the farm. Today, there are about 20 boxes scattered across the farm that attract barn owls and screech owls. The boxes are made of wood. Crews perch them on poles high above the orchard. The owls that make their home in the boxes serve as a biological control and keep the gopher populations in check.
“The research is extensive and clear that owls eat gophers,” Farmer Al says.
We have our own evidence too. We know the owl boxes are working because we maintain them once a year – the sun and elements damage them, so we need to replace a perch or a side here and there. We also clear away the debris the owls leave from their meal times. Farmer Al suspects that an owl can eat one gopher a night.
We know the owl boxes are working because the owls leave a mess for us – the proof is there. They make it easy for us to measure the success of this aspect of our IPM strategy.