MPSJ tries barn owls for rat control

Yeoh (right) watches as Datuk Nor Hisham releases a pair of barn owls from a nest box placed temporarily on a tree in SS15/2E. — Pictures by Razak Ghazali
Yeoh (right) watches as Datuk Nor Hisham releases a pair of barn owls from a nest box placed temporarily on a tree in SS15/2E. — Pictures by Razak Ghazali

SUBANG JAYA, Dec 24 — The Subang Jaya Municipal Council is counting on the predatory skills of barn owls to curb its rodent problems.

The council has joined forces with Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Selangor Department of Wildlife and National Parks and local community newsletter SJ Echo to initiate a pilot project introducing barn owls as a biological agent to control the rat population in the municipality.

The project, which was launched in SS15/2E yesterday, was the first of such nature to be introduced in Asia.

Council president Datuk Nor Hisham Ahmad Dahlan said they had been using rat poison to combat the issue but it was no longer effective.

“A total of 8,463 rats were killed by the council between 2013 and this year but the rodents develop a higher tolerance to poison,” Nor Hisham said.

“We decided to switch to this method as it is less harmful to other animals and human beings.”

He said while there was no guarantee the rodent problem can be fully eradicated by using such a biological approach, it was still a safer option which also promised results.

USM research head Prof Abu Hassan Ahmad said barn owls have been mobilised to kill rats in the local palm oil industry since 1970 but were not conditioned for urban mobilisation until recently.

“The challenge here is to condition the owls to urban surroundings unlike its natural habitat, which is free from noises and bright lights,” he said.

“But the method had been proven effective in South Africa, as it had been used since 2008.”

He said a special team from the university trained the birds for six months to familiarise them with a new diet before they were transported to the field.

“Barn owls generally eat field rats but the training changed their diet to roof rats,” he said.

He said a barn owl could consume up to 350g of meat per feeding and was expected to kill and eat 1,000 rats per year.

Abu Hassan said the pilot project was viable due to its sustainability.

“It costs approximately RM4,500 to train and habituate a pair of barn owls,” he said, adding that an owl could cover up to a 40km radius.

The pilot project will see 12 pairs of barn owls released in stages in Subang Jaya in a span of six months.

When an owl leaves its nest box, it will be monitored by a special unit comprising of council members and USM researchers through a special transmitter attached to its back.

The nest boxes will be perched on trees and tall posts all across Subang Jaya, Sunway and USJ.

Residents are optimistic the project will be able to control the rodent population, especially in the SS15 commercial area.

Retired teacher Wan Yoke Ann, 61, applauded the initiative for its go-green sentiment.

“Previously, the council used to lay out rat poison. It was effective to some point but I always thought it was hazardous to us and the environment,” she said.

“Now, I can take a breather knowing these cute birds are doing the job for us.”

SS15 residents’ association president Borhan Rahmat said: “I hope the owls will kill and eat those rodents as taught during their training. They would make Subang Jaya a much better place to live in,” he said.

Among those present during the launch were Selangor Speaker and Subang Jaya assemblyman Hannah Yeoh and Subang Jaya police chief ACP Yahaya Ramli.

The barn owls were trained for approximately six months in USM Penang to enable them to adapt to living in urban areas.