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Of Owls And Rats

Omar Chowdhury
1 April, 2005

I have recently been writing about mosquitoes, elephants, rats, and mice. Now again I am concerned with a question of rats, and the beast way to get rid of them, since Indonesia seems to have a severe rodent problem, and the authorities have come forward with an intriguing measure with which to combat it. I quote.
“Jakarta : The Indonesian Transmigration Ministry Plans to distribute 100 pairs of owls to several transmigration settlements throughout the country to help them fight local rat plagues, reports AFP.” The rest of the news item deals with details. Into which we need not probe. We are interested in the use of owls for the purpose of eradicating rats.
The possibility to dread most about rats spreading diseases is that bubonic plague might be one of them. But there is an important aspect of this to take into account. The rat itself is not the guilty carrier of the disease, the fleas which inhabit the rat’s coat perform that dangerous mission. So, the rats carry the fleas, and the fleas carry the disease. Nature has ordained that insects may sometimes carry fatal diseases whilst remaining immune themselves : malaria, and plague, for example.
Let us consider the owl, that bird of prey which glides silently in the silvery shadows of the night, with hardly an audible rustle of its ghostly wings, carnivorous to the core, searching for succulent morsels of flesh to eat. The owl has always been regarded as wise, invariably wearing a solemn and forbidding _expression, its small hooked beak not, however, meant to impart matchless wisdom, but ready to inflict much damage, if required to do so.
A mouse is regarded as a special delicacy by the average owl. With its large eyes, which can see so clearly in the dark, it scours the surrounding landscape from a branch, or flies low looking for prey on the ground, watching for the slightest movement to distinguish its prey. Once sighted, beak and claws do their deadly work!
It is apparently this nocturnal feathery creature that the Transmigration Ministry has chosen to tackle the rat problem in the settlements. Many questions arise. Fond as the owl might be of mice, the rat may be quite a different kettle of fish (to use an inappropriate simile) for the fussy owl, some of which have been known to turn up their nostrils at the sight of a small rabbit! They will swoop on a cockroach (I have seen them doing this), but not on a beetle, which can prove a powerful adversary, even in the grip of those vice-like claws. So what is the guarantee that the hundreds of owls which the Ministry plans to press into service will cooperate if they just don’t like the idea of capturing and eating rats?
The Ministry should have set up a study group to investigate thoroughly the dietary presences of the common or garden owl found in the islands of Indonesia, unless they are vastly different from owls which inhabit other parts of south Asia. All owl characteristics are significant, and should be studied. What better authority could be found than Professor P.C. Screech, the prize winning expert on such birds as the parrot and the magpie? In a monograph primarily concerned with the daytime activities of the owl he observes : “They sleep most of the time. They have been known to preen their feathers at sunset, in preparation for chance encounters with the opposite sex under a romantic moon. They do not like the companionship of other owls, when searching for prey or a potential mate.” They are therefore perhaps not to be trusted in such matters as organized raids on legions of rats. They are loners. Who prefer to hunt on their own.
The Transmigration Ministry needs all the advice and help they can get. As we have noted above, disease carrying fleas live in the furry coats of rats. If the rats are killed, where will the fleas go ? if they succeed in migrating from a dead rat to the feathers of a killer owl, what happens next? Better ask the owl!
Perhaps it would be a good idea to think of the Rodent Exterminator. This specialist has been specifically trained in the disposal of rats. He knows the methods, he should be given the tools. Such squads should, properly deployed, deal with the “plague” of rats in a disciplined and efficient manner, and all the dangers ahead removed. There are, of course, imaginative alternatives. Giant cats of the domestic variety for example. They would volunteer with pleasure, and the chases would be worth watching!
In all these pursuits the government should keep in mind the possible interference of the noseyparker agencies which could be swift off the mark. The International Society For The prevention Of Cruelty To Rats. Animal Rights activists. And so on.
A last word of caution to the Ministry. If the owls let you down, if the Exterminators do not come up to scratch, if the feline community shies away, if mesmerism is tried, but to no their slopes to petrify the rodents, do not, even as a last resort, use napalm! Better to try and squash the rats with palm leaves, than do that!


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