One of the barn owls on Miel Bernstein’s property, being tagged by veterinarian Dick Clegg. (Miel Bernstein/Contributed)

VIDEO: Agassiz farm spreads awareness for barn owls

Miel Bernstein hopes others will learn how they can help the threatened owl species

The barn owls who live in the shavings barn behind the stables at Agassiz’s Miellie Meadows got an unwelcome daytime surprise in early July.

The four babies, who had been spending their childhood in a box high in the barn’s rafters for the last six weeks, were rudely awakened by a 69-year-old man with a headlamp, taken out of their comforting nest one by one and had a band placed around their legs. Then, the man carried them down a rickety ladder to a crowd of approximately 15 people, who were waiting to see and photograph the birds.

It was a stressful experience for the small owls, who hadn’t yet learned to fly, but an important one.

“I always tell them, ‘Listen. You’re being an ambassador for your species,’” said Miel Bernstein, the owner of the farm where the barn owls were nesting.

She had organized the banding session with retired veterinarian and barn owl advocate Dick Clegg, which this year saw the farm’s four barn owl babies given small anklets that would help researchers learn how old they are and where they were born.

Clegg said banding these owls is one way that people like him can help researchers learn more about barn owls.

“Mostly, when they’re hit on the road, someone finds them and if they notice the band and report it, then we learn where that owl travelled to, how long it lived and how it died,” he explained.

Barn owls are one of the most widely distributed species of owl in the world, but in Canada they only exist in the Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, small pockets of the Interior and part of the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario.

They are listed as a threatened species federally, and are red-listed provincially – in 2010, the Fraser Valley population was estimated between 250 and 1,000 individuals – largely because of their already small populations being impacted by habitat loss, rat poison and highway mortalities.

RELATED: What’s killing the barn owls of the Fraser Valley?

By banding the owls, Clegg is giving researchers more ways to track the species and find out more about their habits. But it’s also a chance for people to learn more about the secretive species.

Veterinarian Dick Clegg banding one of Miel Bernstein’s baby barn owls, which have been growing up in a box in her barn for the last few weeks. (Miel Bernstein/Contributed)

“Just about anybody where they have owls in their barn, after the first year, they get really protective of them and aware of the hazards for them,” Clegg said. “They try really hard to keep them.”

That was the case for Bernstein and her family, who have lived on their Agassiz farm for 19 years. They’ve always had barn owls living in the 127-year-old barn on their property, and recently added a second nesting box in the shavings shed where this year’s brood was born.

Having the owls raising their chicks on the property brought the challenges this species faces into plain view. Three years ago, Bernstein had seven owl chicks in the heritage barn and five in the shavings bin. Clegg came, as he did this year, to band them.

“Then the mom picked up a poisoned rat, we’re assuming, and came back with it,” Bernstein remembered. “My boys and husband actually found the whole nest, but two, dead.

“That was devastating.”

The two surviving chicks Bernstein sent to OWL in Delta, which takes care of injured and orphaned raptors like barn owls. They were later able to be released back into the wild on Bernstein’s property.

RELATED: Fraser Valley developer offering to build barn owl nesting boxes for free

But the message of the dangers of rat poison stuck. As Miellie Meadows is an organic farm, the rat poison likely came from rodenticide on farms within the owl’s 350-hectare range. And Bernstein is hoping that the more people know about barn owls, the less likely they will be to use rat poison on their own properties.

People came out to the informal information session when veterinarian Dick Clegg banded four baby Barn Owls on Friday, July 5. For property owner Miel Bernstein, this is a good opportunity to let people get to know these threatened creatures. (Miel Bernstein/Contributed)

“We really like to encourage people that, instead of using rat poison, to have habitat for owls,” she explained. “When the parents are feeding (the chicks) at night, you can sit out and watch them. Literally every 20 minutes they’re flying in food for the babies.”

To let people get to know the owls, and the importance of not using rat poison, Bernstein invites people to her farm to watch the banding take place. On Friday, July 5, she had neighbours, farm employees and a writers’ retreat come down to watch.

“Sometimes we’ve had it be more formal. This year was a little bit less formal,” she said. “But if they’re going to have to go through the stress of being banded, I like people to meet them and hear about them.

“You don’t get to see them very often up in person,” she added. “So I always tell people that your job now is to go out and spread the word.

“They need help.”



grace.kennedy@ahobserver.com

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