Requiem for a Great Horned Owl

A warm late summer afternoon at Stanford University. I’d found a shady grove to sit and eat my lunchtime sandwich. As I strolled back to my office in Encina Hall, the administration building, I noticed several co-workers clustered under the huge live oak in front of the building, hugging each other and gazing at something on the ground. Uneasy, I hurried to join them. The looks on my friends’ faces confirmed my fears. ”Our” Great Horned Owl, who regularly roosted in the oak, lay crumpled on the ground.

I glanced back at the old sandstone building behind me. In spring, the owl and its mate had nested on a fourth floor windowsill of Encina’s east wing, which had been gutted by fire in 1972, ten years earlier, and was now uninhabited by humans. We delighted in seeing the fuzzy owlets emerge from behind the broken and boarded-up window and perch precariously on the stone sill. Owl parents returned with food, such as gophers and ground squirrels. Interoffice memoranda reported on the babies’ progress in learning to fly.

That year had seen a huge increase in ground squirrels on the university grounds. We learned that the groundskeepers were laying an anti-coagulant poison to try to reduce the damage to trees and bushes. The most likely cause of the owl’s death was a poisoned rodent. Angrily, staff and students demanded that the Grounds Dept. cease using the poison.

They desisted for a while. But fourteen years later, a local newspaper, the Palo Alto Weekly, did a follow-up story. It quotes the Manager of Grounds, who “does not recall that there was a clear link between the death of the owl and ground squirrel poison. But whatever was said fourteen years ago,” the Weekly article continued, “one thing is clear. Stanford is once again controlling the ground squirrel population with poison. For nearly a year, Stanford has been killing ground squirrels by giving them food laced with an anti-coagulant, which causes the animals to internally bleed to death over several days. The program has upset campus bird watchers, many of whom remember what happened to the owl family.”

This year, I decided to follow up. I read on Stanford’s website that the university had launched an Integrated Pest Management program in 1997, the year after the Palo Alto Weekly article appeared. Since then, according to the website, “the Grounds department at Stanford has been dedicated to using an integrated pest management approach to provide suppression and long-term control of pests on campus, with the least amount of impact to the environment, non-target organisms and human health.”

Herb Fong, who was Grounds manager during the 1980s and ‘90s, is now retired, but agreed to inquire on my behalf as to the department’s current policies. Today I had excellent news. Herb writes: “I confirmed with staff that they are continuing to use trapping as the means to control the ground squirrels and no baits are used on the campus.”

If an 8,180-acre campus, mostly woods and grasslands, can stop using poisons, so can any other property whose owners care about wildlife.

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