Owls on the Prowl

By Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary

People in Chile have been experiencing a serious problem—rats. The main problem is that a species of rats, called the long-tailed pygmy rice rats, have been forced into Chile’s major cities because of forest fires due to the dry spell the country has suffered. The real danger is not the rats attacking people but of spreading the deadly hantavirus which can be fatal or crippling to humans but does not harm the rats. Human efforts at eradicating the rats has only met with very limited success—the rats know how to hide and stay clear of people.

So far, 15 people have died from the hantavirus. In an effort to eradicate the rats, the Chilean Forest Service has come up with an ingenious plan. They intend to breed and then release Chilean white owls and horned owls. Since these owls are efficient predators against the rats, it is hoped that the owls will be able to get the rats where people are unable to catch them. Owls have long been successful at keeping the pygmy rats from over-breeding in Chile’s forests, and it is hoped that the owls will be able to get rid of the rats in the major cities.

There are two main problems. First, it remains to be seen if the owls can adapt to living and breeding in the major cities. It is generally harder for birds to take to an urban environment. Second, there is a superstition that owls are a symbol of death, so many Chileans may simply try to chase away or even kill the owls. The Chilean government is putting out an extensive advertising campaign that the owls are not only not a symbol of death but will even save lives if they halt the spread of the hantavirus. Hopefully the owls will be part of a new tradition—getting rid of dangerous animals using nature’s way.

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