Natural selection

Fair View students build owl boxes to control gophers on district fields

Fair View High junior Daniel Williams finishes construction of an owl box, which is meant to attract barn or screech owls that prey on gophers.

Fair View High junior Daniel Williams finishes construction of an owl box, which is meant to attract barn or screech owls that prey on gophers.

Photo by Ernesto Rivera

Four years ago, Julie Kistle took a tour of the campuses within the Chico Unified School District, meeting with staff, parents and students. As director of facilities for the district, she was surveying them in preparation for a new facilities master plan.

One thing stuck out in her mind: There was an overwhelming concern about the playing fields. Every campus expressed problems with gopher holes and the issues they caused with physical education programs and playground activities.

“The students couldn’t really run without tripping or hitting a gopher hole,” Kistle said. “That item was raised when we were doing our master plan, so we needed to come up with some solutions.”

The district first tried to eradicate the gophers by trapping and killing them, which was somewhat successful. But many people didn’t want to see the gophers killed, Kistle said, and district rules prevent poison near school sites. So she went looking for more humane and natural ways to deal with the gopher problem. A few local farmers suggested to her that bringing in natural predators, like owls, could help control the gopher population. During her research, Kistle found out that even one owl at a school site could make a significant difference.

So, how to attract owls—in particular, barn and screech owls—to CUSD campuses? Nesting boxes. Owls don’t build their own nests, according to the Hungry Owl Project, a nonprofit based in Marin County whose goal is to protect California’s owl populations by increasing habitat and decreasing the use of poisons in their food (i.e., gophers). Historically, they have found natural habitat in tree cavities or old barns—but those areas are in decline.

“It is our aim to reduce the need for dangerous rodenticides while promoting the use of barn owls and other natural predators for pest control,” the HOP website reads. “It can truly be a ‘win win’ situation. Landowners benefit from the pest control provided by owls and the owls get safe locations to nest and safe habitat to hunt.”

Last fall, students in Matt McGuire’s construction tech class at Fair View High School began choosing designs for and building owl boxes. The materials were paid for with funds from Measure E, a $78 million bond measure passed in 2012 that sets aside money for safety and security projects.

McGuire, whose classes have been involved in community projects including partnering with Habitat for Humanity, said he feels it’s important for his regional occupational program (ROP) shop class to get real-world experiences and gain technical skills, plus help support the community.

“It’s all about giving kids an entry-level knowledge in the industry so they can have experience if that’s something they want to do when they graduate or find some summertime work,” McGuire said.

Daniel Williams, a junior at Fair View, joined the elective shop class as a way to get specialized training. Inside the high school’s shop, the 16-year-old said that working on a project like this is a good way to develop skills. He’s hoping to join the automotive industry when he leaves high school, so having access to tools and the ability to work with his hands was important to him. Plus, the project serves a good purpose.

“It gives a lot, it’s helping out and it’s a big project for the class,” Williams said. “I’ve seen a bunch of gophers and our field is just toast.”

In March, after months of building and planning, McGuire and his class made their way out to the school sites to scope out the best trees suitable for the boxes and begin installing them. So far, they’ve traveled to almost every campus across the district. Each school is receiving two boxes, and they should be finished with the entire district by Friday (May 27). Then they’ll just have to wait for the owls to come.

“It doesn’t mean that because we build them they will come,” Kistle said, “but we’re hoping that they’ll find our boxes and decide to nest there, eventually.”

For McGuire, who’s taught at Fair View for the past 13 years, community service projects instill important values in his students. They teach them the importance of giving back to their local communities and give them a sense of pride and purpose in their work.

“A project like this is cool for the kids because they get to help the district and give back to the district that was here for them,” McGuire said. “Whenever they go by a school, they can say, ‘Hey, that’s ours; we built those.’”

Having students take ownership of the owl box project from beginning to end was important for Kistle. It was a small enough project that the students could each see it through from designing, to choosing the materials, to building, to installing.

“When I get the phone call that industry partners hired a student of mine, that’s why I do it,” McGuire said. “My success is when kids call me years down the road and say thanks and that they’re still in the industry and that they love it.”