By Lisa Justice
From the burrowing owls at Wildhorse to the occasional river otter in Putah Creek, Davis is blessed with an abundance of wildlife. And one feathered friend — a common barn owl — has recently taken up residence around Explorit Science Center, 3141 Fifth St. in Mace Ranch.
Barn owls are found almost all over the world and can be distinguished by their pale, heart-shaped faces and large, dark eyes. Like most owls, barn owls tend to be most active after sunset, but Explorit’s new neighbor makes sporadic daylight appearances.
Barn owls love to feast on other animals that most people would consider pests, such as mice, shrews and voles. Barn owls have even been known to eat swarms of termites!
Because they have higher metabolisms than other owls, barn owls tend to require more food. A male and female barn owl, together with their nesting young, can eat more than 1,000 rodents in a year.
For this reason, barn owls can be a great help to farmers and gardeners. They’ll keep those pest populations under control.
If you have tall trees where you live, you can encourage barn owls to hang out by your house by installing a nesting box. There are several examples of nesting boxes around Davis, including one in an oak tree right behind Explorit in Mace Ranch Park.
Owls are very efficient eaters, usually consuming their prey whole. What they don’t digest — fur and bones — they regurgitate in a gooey, gray lump.
This mass of fur and bones is an owl pellet. Owl pellets are fascinating and easy to dissect. You can use your bare hands, just be sure to wash them thoroughly when you’re done.
Sorting out the bones in an owl pellet can help you figure out exactly what animals that owl has been eating. We’ve even found animal skulls in the pellets from our neighborhood barn owl. Campers in Explorit’s “Slimy, Grimy Science” and “Be a Slimy Sleuth” camps this summer may have an opportunity to dig into some of these pellets themselves.
Owl pellets also can help you figure out where owls like to hang out. Explorit’s new avian friend has been frequenting the tall trees in Mace Ranch park near the parking lot, just to the west of Explorit’s buildings. You can see owl leavings, including pellets, on the sidewalk.
On your next visit to Explorit, be sure to take a quick stroll westward along the northern edge of the parking lot. As you turn right to head down the sidewalk into the park, pause and look up in the trees. You may catch a glimpse of a barn owl.
* Sign up for Explorit Summer Camp 2012 at www.explorit.org/camp. Camp begins June 11 and runs through Aug. 17.
* Explorit’s exhibition, “Forces of Nature,” is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 2-3.
— Explorit Science Center is at 3141 Fifth St. and features a hands-on science exhibit open to the public the first full weekend of the month from October to June. For more information, call (530) 756-0191 or visit http://www.explorit.org, or “like” Explorit on Facebook at www.facebook.com/explorit.fb.