Nature and Environment
News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

Communicating With Deaf Dogs


In my last blog about adopting senior dogs I failed to share some of the problems that can be encountered when doing so. While senior dogs without health issues are slow to be adopted, ones with health issues are even slower. We adopted Ruby (see photo) one month ago, problems and all. The sebaceous cysts were clearly visible and we promptly had her seen by a veterinarian to have them removed so she would be more comfortable. 

Deafness Confirmed: 

With those out of the way our veterinarian routinely checks their ears while they are under anesthesia. We had already discovered she was deaf but wanted to see if any of her hearing could be restored. Regretfully we learned nothing could be done and she would continue to remain totally deaf. She came with no history and hence no name as she was deaf and couldn’t respond to voice recognition commands or any name. Initially I tried hundreds of dog names and when she did not respond to any we suspected she may be deaf. 

Communicating With Deaf Dogs: 

We had never had a totally deaf dog before so we had to find a way to communicate with her. We started with hand signals and she picked up on them quickly. Until we started her training she would stand in place not knowing what to do or what we wanted of her. If she is uncertain what we want from her she still stands or lays in place until we communicate our wishes. We had to have some method of consistent communication between us and the most important lesson was the “come” command. She also learned to take her prompts from our other senior dog who has been with us for many years. She watches us closely when we are outside/inside for signals as to what we want from her. 

Prioritize Commands:

Like most senior dogs she has a strong desire to please and not having the ability to hear verbal commands she looks for direction and guidance. Perhaps younger dogs would not have that strong of a desire to please or to fit into our routine but older dogs seem to always want to please. The  “come” command is so important because we live remotely and have occasional predators roaming about (see photo). Our back yard is 1,600 sf consisting of a 6’ high fence for our dog’s protection. Our canine family are always on a leash when outside and not in the fenced area. 

Canine Disabilities No Reason To Not Adopt: 

As she masters the “come” command we will then move on to other hand signal commands that she will need to know. We don’t think it is wise to attempt too many at one time as it would only serve to confuse her. Her being deaf, her incontinence which is controlled by Rx, or any other senior issue is not a good reason not to adopt her or others like her. Her desire to please us and fit in plus all the love she has is reason enough to make her part of our family. Her medical problems are minor in comparison to the love, desire to please and devotion we receive from her in return. 

Safety Precautions: 

Ruby's deafness only presents minor problems that are easily adjusted to by us. We have given her a tag for her collar that indicates she is deaf and also that she requires daily medication and contact numbers should she get loose. We do not expect she will need the tag but should a guest or visitor hold the gate open and if she would slip out she can’t hear us call her so we exercise additional precautions should any unfortunate occurrence happen. 

Design Hand Signals That Suit The Canine: 

Our hand signals may be different from others with deaf dogs but we are now able to communicate and she is now understanding the new signals better. I’m not sure if there is a uniform set of hand signals so we developed our own. Of course we have to have her attention and be within her sight for the communication to work properly but she seems to know instinctively to look in our direction frequently.  

Deaf Dogs Startle Easily: 

Living remotely as we do with the sounds of nature all around we regret that she can’t enjoy the sounds but her sense of smell and her vision are acute and very little escapes her attention. We have found that it is important not to abruptly wake her while sleeping as she startles easily. We turn on a light or step heavily creating a floor vibration which lets her know we are near and she awakens normally. Because she does not have any noise distractions she tends to sleep soundly and more often. We have not heard her bark yet but no occasion has occurred that would prompt barking. 

No Reason To Not Adopt Dogs Due To Handicaps: 

Adopting senior handicapped dogs should not be a deterrent for anyone as the dog can function normally but just has to be treated a little differently. The rewards are exceedingly great inasmuch as they have more love and devotion than we actually deserve. Neither we or the shelter that adopted her to us were aware she was deaf but that would not have made a difference to us anyway. What we want for Ruby is that she has a safe, loving home to live out her days and for her to be happy and content. Just watching her around the house lets us know she is very happy and she certainly doesn’t allow her disabilities to impede her zest for life in any way. Because a dog is deaf or has other handicaps is no reason not to adopt them in my opinion. 

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain lifestyle with their two senior dogs go to their blog site at:

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Walk Agroecological Paths Toward Food Security

Awaken from your nap 

Yet another massive UN report has been researched, written, and cast into the ceaselessly churning ocean of Internet information. There the report may well sink into oblivion, as so often happens with critical news.

But these well-researched collections of facts and expert insight scream to be recognized, remembered, and acted upon. “Wake up,” the world’s scientists are saying. Arise and take action now for food security.

The name of this latest report is enough to put people back to sleep, but the reality it describes demands acute wakefulness. Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.

Climate change will continue to generate more and more intense floods, drought, storms, and other types of extreme weather. Going to the heart of the matter, The New York Times headlined its story on the report Climate Change Threatens World’s Food Supply.

Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is a lead author of the report. She said that without swift action on a sweeping scale, climate change will accelerate the danger of severe food shortages. The window of opportunity to address this threat is closing rapidly.

The report set out pathways of agroecology for responding to the looming food crisis, and that’s what I want to emphasize, and what I want to encourage readers to emphasize.

Among the range of intelligent and possible responses to impending conditions is to take direct action to increase your household and community food security. There are hundreds of ways to do that, including directly supporting your local farms, farmers markets, food coops, food hubs, community gardens, and so forth. These agroecological approaches are emerging as essential elements of our personal, local, national, and planetary well being.

walk the paths of agroecology

For resources to enable your wise and wakeful action, of course check the deep and rich archive of information on Mother Earth News. You can also check the Pathways page on my Deep Agroecology blog, and the pages for Real Food Media – videos, books, films, and storytelling for transforming the food system.

Images courtesy of

Independent journalist Steven McFadden is rooted in agrarian cyberspace at Information about his wider work and all of his nonfiction books is available at

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Open Water Commercial Fish Farms


Oceanic life is necessary for our planet

Since the subject was recently approached in the comment section of a separate article, perhaps it is a good idea to introduce the proposed concepts for the deepwater or open water commercial fishing industries as proposed in a more sustainable fashion. If there is any real detriment to the implementation of these programs, they will be costly to build, though they will also provide a very real and beneficial long-term return … both financially and environmentally, in addition to the sociological advantage of continuing to provide a long-term benefit to the people of the earth. As such, while it is interesting to theorize, it should be noted that to even begin the studies for such a venture would be more costly than beneficial given the limited capacity of the groups currently involved. However, such studies and ultimately, the construction of commercial deepwater fish farms will be necessary if there is to be any ability to continue feeding the global population.

There is little doubt that commercial fishing under the current methods in place, is not sustainable in any sense of the word. Add in the domestic commercial fishing practices in many third world and developing nations where high explosives are a common tool of the trade, and the damage to our oceans and seas is greatly increased. Factor in the destroyed ecological systems, many of which involve coral reefs and that will take literally thousands of years (or more) to grow back and the picture starts to get clearer … albeit not a very pretty picture. Add in the decimation of commercially viable aquatic species and … well, there is just nothing about the current practices that are sustainable in any real sense. At the end of the day, something must be done before it is too late.

Unfortunately, there are also detriments to attempting to farm commercially viable, deepwater fish in land based fish farms. Water pressures, temperature variations and a host of other factors increase both the costs and challenges, not to mention the effective capacities of these operations. Many shellfish and smaller commercial fish can be successfully grown on land, but this will do little to satisfy the need for tuna, swordfish and a host of other larger, more desirable and profitable species that seemingly need the open oceans to survive. As such, the prospect of deepwater or open water commercial fish farms or fisheries will be necessary in order to maintain the levels of productivity necessary for the continued growth and expansion of the human race.

Deepwater Fishery Facility Designs

There are already some existing companies with rather radical designs for open water and even deep water vessels and even stations. At present, the current designs are such that much of the vessel remains above the water level, though a substantial portion also remains below the water. Given the engineering expertise, it is not overly difficult to imagine a deepwater vessel that will be largely submerged, with little more than lighthouses or towers protruding above the surface of the water. These vessels would ideally be located anywhere from one hundred and fifty feet to three hundred and fifty feet below the surface of the oceans.

Such a configuration would allow for the deepwater commercial fisheries to be located largely underwater, safely out of the way of storms, shipping and even the occasional rogue wave. While there is still underwater turbulence that must be dealt with, this is generally more minimal in nature and can be sufficiently counteracted by the use of retro-thrusters or water jets strategically placed around the individual compounds. Escape pods would likely have to be pressurized, though such a configuration would ostensibly at least, allow for the relatively safe and complete evacuation of such stations in short order should it become necessary.

Deepwater Fish Containment Areas

Carbon fiber is a key component of the construction for many portions of these deepwater facilities. It is also a viable material to be used to build containment fields or areas for the fish being farmed and raised. A series of facilities will be strategically located, with carbon fiber fencing built between them, extending from the facility itself down to the bottom of the ocean as necessary. Depending on the species, a similar carbon fiber overlay can be used in conjunction with hydraulics, to provide a retractable surface net that can extend from the level of the facilities to the ocean surface … subject to passing traffic and the requirements of the fish being farmed at any given location.

This configuration will allow for a limited amount of isolation to allow for the introduction of singular or at least a limited number of species to be raised and harvested from any individual farm, while at the same time allowing for the fish to live in a natural, expanded environment. The carbon fiber is not by any stretch impervious to damage or destruction, and repairs would have to be made, but there is no reason that such a facility could not fully encompass tens or even hundreds of square miles of open waters. Tensile strength, compressive strength and other factors are easily and mathematically quantified allowing for the design teams to determine how many of the portable facilities would be necessary in exact measure.

Reefs are home to an amazing diversity of life

Costs and Restrictions

In the initial phases, these projects will be overly expensive and require long-term investors with a similar vision for a sustainable future. Some will claim that government is the only viable solution for the operation of such facilities, though history may paint something of a different picture. Ideally, these facilities would be owned by the “Incorporated Foundations” as structured, in order that the proceeds could be returned to supplement the infrastructural and social needs of the people, in addition to providing for the ability to expand the sustainable developments on a more global scale.

The cost of literally billions of dollars may seem rather exorbitant merely for the sake of having seafood options at dinner time. However, the cost of doing nothing in terms of environmental, sociological and even economic factors is far too great to even briefly consider.

As always, please leave any of your thoughts, comments, questions and suggestions in the comment section below so that they can be addressed individually, and perhaps even used for consideration in future articles. None of this work would be possible without you, the reader, and as such, your thoughts and considerations are the most important aspect of any articles published herein.

Ruth Tandaan Sto Domingo has worked with numerous NGOs, governments and Indigenous communities in Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and Vanuatu to implement sustainable solutions. She is the co-author of Whole System Sustainable Development. Ruth enjoys “hyper-realistic” cross stitch and is working with her husband to build a largely off-grid and self-sufficient home where she will raise livestock and garden both flowers and food. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Reverse Pollinator Decline in Your Backyard

Craft Project Bee Shelter DIY

Photo by artyangel

“If bees disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.” You may have heard this quote, often attributed (likely erroneously) to Einstein. And while the words are over dramatic and the message not exactly factual, it is true that pollinators are in big trouble and if their decline continues, so are we.

Pollinators in Peril

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us that without pollinators, we simply won’t eat. U.S. farmers rely on one pollinator species in particular, the honeybee Apis mellifera, to pollinate most of their crops. Honeybees produce an estimated $15 billion worth of food each year (a third of the food produced in the U.S.) and if their populations continue to dwindle, consumers will have to pick up the tab. Fresh fruit and vegetables could become luxuries only the wealthy can afford.

Thanks to pollinators, you can enjoy a wide range of products. The apple you’re munching on, the coffee you had for breakfast, the cotton you’re wearing. All brought to you by pollinators.

While bees are our most important pollinators, a myriad of other animals also pollinate: at least 100,000 invertebrates like beetles, wasps and butterflies, as well as over 1,000 birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. These animals are all part of the indispensable pollinator-plant ecosystem which, until now, most of us have taken for granted.

In the last few decades, we have seen a steady decline in our pollinator populations mainly due to habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, invasive species and parasites.

We won’t perish with the bees as the quote suggests, but if we do nothing to help them, the ones of us unwilling to shell out $20 for an apple can expect a bland and boring future of wheat, corn and other wind pollinated crops. In addition to flavor and variety, we would also lose a lot of health benefits. We would see a sharp decline in crops and wild plants that provide us with important micronutrients, leading to an increase in deficiencies and severely impacting global food security

Bees going extinct wouldn’t be an isolated occurrence but would most likely come at the end of a long chain of events leaving the planet, and subsequently us, decimated. Spreading awareness of pollinator decline, and ensuring policies are put in place to reverse it, is crucial.

Supporting Pollinators at Home

DIY Insect Hotel Backyard

Photo by melkhagelslag

The challenges they face are many, but you can help pollinators recover by providing food, water and shelter in your own backyard — or even your windowsill. Here are a few things you can do to help them thrive.

Create a succession of bloom. Plant shrubs, flowers and trees of a variety of colors, shapes and scents and that flower at different times. This will attract many different kinds of pollinators, and provide them with nectar and pollen from spring to fall. Many flowering shrubs and trees provide food early in the spring when it is otherwise scarce. A few examples are cherry, poplar, blueberry and willow.

Provide food for the whole life cycle. This is especially true for butterflies and caterpillars. Animals in adult and immature stages like different plants. Eastern black swallowtail caterpillars only eat plants from the carrot family. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed while adults enjoy a variety of flowers. Plant caterpillar favorites in less conspicuous places as they will be visibly chewed on (hopefully)!

Plant native species. Native plants and native wildlife co-evolved. This makes a variety of native plants the best habitat and food for pollinators, and having plants that thrive in the existing light, moisture and soil conditions of your garden also makes caring for it much easier.

Create nesting places. Most bee species actually do not form hives, but nest and lay eggs in rotting wood or sandy soil. Leaving some dead tree trunks and bare patches of well-drained, sandy soil in your backyard will provide excellent nesting places for many bee species. There are also many different kinds of bug hotels for sale, and it is easy to build your own.

Provide a water source. A shallow dish or birdbath filled with stones or marbles will make a great watering hole for pollinators. They need perches in low water to drink safely. Some, especially butterflies but also some species of bees, prefer to quench their thirst at a mud puddle, which you can easily create by letting a garden hose or faucet drip to dampen the soil.

Plant milkweed. In the last two decades, the monarch butterfly populations have plummeted by around 90% in the east and to near extinction in the west. Habitat loss and the use of herbicides are largely to blame, but another cause is the lack of milkweed, a plant which hosts the caterpillar and thus is necessary for the butterfly to complete its life cycle. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that if two out of every one hundred city dwellers in the eastern U.S. planted milkweed, urban areas could provide around 30% of habitat needed for eastern populations to fully recover. You can easily find out which kind of milkweed is native to your region. No pollinator-friendly garden is complete without it!

These are just a few ideas on how to provide habitat and food for pollinators. Read more about ways you can help them at:

MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ pollinator gardening pages

University of Minnesota Extension

David Suzuki Foundation

The Wildlife Trusts

Mia Rishel is a conservation biologist whose work has taken her many exciting places: rehabilitating wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, helping endangered iguanas in Mexico, teaching predator coexistence in Namibia, and promoting farm animal welfare in Zanzibar. She is Volunteer Coordinator for The Orangutan Project USA, a grant writer for Conservation South Luangwa and a copywriter for Faunalytics. Read all of Mia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Just the Fracking Truth: Comparing Alternative Energies to Natural Gas

 Strip Mining is NOT sustainable

In all honesty, there probably is not any singular solution to the energy crisis. Wind and solar energy, despite some great leaps and bounds in the technologies, remain not quite ready for prime time. Still, despite that fact, they do remain viable options, especially for those living off the grid or on a small homestead, and for those who may require more in the way of supplemental power resources. Waste To Energy is not a viable option for most, though there do appear to be some very promising advancements in the technology that should be forthcoming within this generation. Waste to Energy generally relies on modern diverter technology that converts the waste, either through incineration or heating, but numerous viable (and marketable) by-products are also made available with some of the helioconverter technologies in use. Perhaps, the biggest complaint about the utilization of natural gas stems from the process of fracking. What is all too often either forgotten or dismissed, are “ancient” technologies that can virtually eliminate any need for fracking.

Oil is so deeply embedded into the world today that it is virtually impossible to realistically hope to avoid its continued use. However, this does not mean that we should not greatly reduce our dependency on this substance, despite some arguments to the contrary. There is an increasing amount of evidence that indicates that oil may in fact be abiotic in nature, a very interesting topic for anyone with an open mind. Still, this says nothing about why the earth would produce such an abiotic substance naturally unless it served some purpose. Is it possible that the oil is formed as some type of natural lubricant to keep the tectonic and teutonic plates from shifting too violently or rapidly? The truth is, it does not matter. A substantial reduction in our dependency on oil would allow us to exist utilizing little more than that which is extricated naturally from the interior of the earth.

Solar and Wind energy production has shown to be largely incapable of keeping up with peak power and often requires backup from those same coal fired plants that so desperately need to go the way of the dodo bird. Still, portable units are now inexpensive and viable enough to allow for these systems to be used to power virtually anything that requires only small levels of amperage. Effectively, anything that does not heat up or cool down can be run on solar and/or wind energy with relatively few difficulties.

Twelve-volt wiring can be done largely with traditional speaker wire, even using standard light switches for lighting. Car stereos are quite capable of producing viable sound systems for single rooms … especially with the addition of an old power booster. The new headlights are great for lighting up entire rooms, especially with the addition of a reflector. 1156 and 1157 brakelight bulbs are great for nightlights and even as outdoor lighting. As this technology improves and is more fully integrated with other alternative energy resources, there is every reason to believe that these resources are dependable and reliable alternatives for much of the current energy consumption and requirements for all of humanity.

Waste to Energy is a personal favorite of the author, but that is due to their work with a group from Germany and Australia who have devised a means to convert waste to energy, biodiesel, biogas, biochar and water which can then be distilled for human consumption … all without any need for incineration. The only real negative seems to be that there is a net loss of the Natural Gas (or methane) that is produced due to the fact that it is used to heat the waste and accelerate the process of decomposition. This remains unfavorable to a great many individuals however, as much of the technology merely focuses on the production of fuel and burning that fuel in more traditional, equally polluting generators. Certainly, such activities are not much (if any) better than the current power plants in regards to the emission of pollutants into our atmosphere.

Natural Gas, Methane and Propane are generally much cleaner burning than more traditional fuels, and exhausts can be further filtered to provide a greater reduction for emissions. Anyone who has ever had a fairly decent camper or even one of the nicer Recreational Vehicles, has probably seen systems largely set up for propane. Propane refrigeration and freezer units are actually based on the ammonia based systems from the early nineteen hundreds but are surprisingly efficient. Granted, there may still be issues with the refrigerants, but getting rid of refrigeration altogether would allow for the spread of disease at levels not seen for centuries. Even in the middle of the Nevada desert with no shade and temperatures routinely peaking at around one hundred and fifteen degrees Fahrenheit (or around forty-six degrees Celsius) a propane refrigerator kept the ice cream frozen, the beer cold and the bacteria at bay.

Destroying entire ranges is less than ideal

One of the biggest complaints about the large-scale use of Natural Gas is the process of “fracking” used to extract the natural gas from the ground. What is perhaps more amazing however, is just how much methane is released into the atmosphere wholly unchecked and much of which could be trapped or otherwise collected for commercial use. Gas traps are increasingly common in new landfills, but with a sufficient number of helioconverters in use, landfills could remain virtually empty, save for some of the more toxic waste that may require a little additional consideration when being disposed. Wastewater effluent, solid animal waste from commercial farms, and even organic waste can be easily converted to “natural gas” or methane as it is produced naturally from the decomposition process.

Methane is more than twenty times as potent as Carbon Dioxide when released into the atmosphere, and unlike the carbon dioxide, cannot be absorbed by trees or other plant life. Despite its more prominent status as a greenhouse gas, large volumes of methane are constantly being released, completely unchecked and allowed into the atmosphere. While the ongoing efforts to become better stewards of the environment should no doubt continue, such a focus on more “natural” Natural Gas production (as opposed to the fracking) should receive a good deal more attention as it would generate numerous benefits.

Elevated production of naturally occurring gas would reduce the cost of the end product, allow for the cleaner burning of fuel, allow for more efficient filtering of the emissions and ultimately, should seemingly be a viable and virtually open market. While the helioconverter technologies may not be as advanced as they could be today, many of these more natural sources for natural gas can be generated in large-scale, old school digesters today.

As always, please leave any of your thoughts, comments, questions and suggestions in the comment section below so that they can be addressed individually, and perhaps even used for consideration in future articles. None of this work would be possible without you, the reader, and as such, your thoughts and considerations are the most important aspect of any articles published herein.

Photos by DarkWorkX

Ruth Tandaan Sto Domingo has worked with numerous NGOs, governments and Indigenous communities in Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and Vanuatu to implement sustainable solutions. She is the co-author of  Whole System Sustainable Development. Ruth enjoys “hyper-realistic” cross stitch and is working with her husband to build a largely off-grid and self-sufficient home where she will raise livestock and garden both flowers and food. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Building Backyard Habitat for Barn Owls: Lessons from a Lifelong Naturalist

Red And Gray Barn Owl

There it was. A barn owl nest box hanging in a low branch of a spreading sycamore tree. I was bidding to trim the tree at the time and I mentioned to my prospective client that it was too low — owls would not nest there because they had no privacy. She wanted to know how I knew, and I explained that I had been a falconer all my life, and that I had climbed and studied all species of raptor nests.

She told me her late husband had hung it, but that was as high as he could on a ladder. If she got owls, maybe she could watch the babies while doing the dishes. I offered that if she awarded me the tree job, I would move the nest box higher up gratis and she immediately accepted.

Three days later on a sunny Saturday morning, I got a phone call. My client was excited, and bubbling over that she was hosting her bridge club and someone noticed a pair of owls up in the newly placed nesting box, staring down at the house.

I was hooked.

All nine of her friends wanted an owl box as well, and it dawned on me it could be a business. That was over 30,000 barn owl nesting boxes and 27 years ago.

A Lifelong Naturalist’s Knowledge of Barn Owls

During those 27 years, I’ve studied and researched barn owls and my fascination with them has never ended.

Barn owls have the best hearing of any bird — I believe they can hear your heart beating if you’re close enough to the owl house. They have a primitive echolocation capability and can navigate by a clicking sound. There is a record of a totally blind barn owl in Texas that was “making a living” alongside a roadway. By hopping from fence post to fence post, it could detect and catch rodents in the grass.

Their entire face is a sound-gathering sonic dish, which channels and amplifies sound to a pair of offset ear drums, allowing them to triangulate on sound. This aids in hunting and navigation. Perched or flying, they can hear a rodent excavating dirt to the ground’s surface, after which they loiter over the hole. When the rodent emerges: dinner time.

Barn owls have an elevated metabolism, thus their need for calories is extremely high. This makes the barn owl very desirable for home owners and large property owners wishing to rid their property of rodents. One study showed that barn owls consume as many as 2,000 rodents per year, per pair, when feeding their young. These are mostly rats and mice, but moles, voles, gophers and snakes will do. In San Diego, I saw a barn owl fly out of the dark, grab a grunion fish and fly off with it. Variety is the spice of life, I guess.

Creating Backyard Habitat for Barn Owls

Attracting barn owls to one’s backyard is most effective after you understand what the owls want and need. They can be attracted to take up residency in a bewildering array of artificial man-made cavities. Yes, boxes designed for them are best, but I’ve seen them in everything from an old dairy type milk can to an almost-full bucket of sand in a metal garden shed.

It’s important for an owl box installer be aware of which direction the birds prefer and which directions they reject. Most of the boxes installed here in San Diego, are hung by chains in trees. Insects are attracted to these boxes as well, and keeping them out is a significant “trick of the trade.” It took a number of years and many attempts to come up with a nontoxic to owls formula which I paint on the ceiling that prevents bees from colonizing the boxes.

These birds begin to nest in the lower United States latitudes by about February. As with all life, barn owls need three things on their shopping list: Water, food. and cover. They get all the hydration they need from the food they eat, so those first two bases are covered. Add one or two nest boxes (two is better but not a rule), his and hers, and it’s just a matter of time before they move in.

What a delight it is when they come to stay. Their courtship is an amazing feat and quite aerial with the male circling up higher and higher, then diving straight down, only to pull out of the dive, miss the female by an inch, and shoot directly into the nest box — all the while sounding his best “come hither” calls.

Barn Owl Nest Boxes for Backyard Wildlife Habitat

DIY Barn Owl Nesting Box

Why are nesting boxes needed? Because urban and suburban areas lack many hollow trees, which are their most common nesting sites. What do we do with a hazardous hollow tree in residential areas? We cut them down, and as they topple so do the potential barn owl homes.

The configuration of the nest box is important. I originally copied that first owl box's design. But soon I came to realized that it had room for improvement. I have been a falconer for 45 years and captive bred birds of prey for about 12 years. I applied what I knew about the needs of nesting raptors to the owl box improvements.

The doorway was up high on the face of the box. Most owl box companies have them configured this way. In short order, the box will fill with the cast off pellets, grass and detritus all the way up to the bottom of the doorway. Now the owls quit nesting as there is no room to stand up inside the box.

Someone now needs to get back up to the box or bring it down to be cleaned. This is problematic in a number of ways. The box must have a clean out hatch on the backside with hinges and a hasp, adding to cost.

The plywood must now be thicker than the 1/2-inch CDX to 5/8-inch, adding to cost. The cutting of the hatch and installed the hinges and hasp adds to the labor cost in time.

Often the owner is not aware that the birds start nesting as early as December (in San Diego) and if they "double clutch" as raptor propagators say, or, the laying of a second set of eggs, they may end the season as late as mid October.

The person climbs up or takes the box down at the wrong time and scares away the owls and possibly breaking the eggs, a barn owl catastrophe. I have to say here that I have never heard of a human catching a disease from a raptor but the litter from the box is quite disgusting with a pallet closing quality all its own. It doesn't reek downwind but smells funky enough that I do not want my clients exposed to it.

 "What if there is a way to allow the materiel to fall out on its own? " I queried the guy in my head I call myself. So I cut down the little round doorway and knocked out the tab. The door now resembled a tombstone. I installed it in a tree along my driveway to test it. Five weeks later I pulled up under the tree and gathering up my phone and briefcase, I heard the neighbors. It sounded as if someone was hand sanding some wood close by. There was dust floating about but I was alone.

Following the dust trail up, I saw it emanated from the owl box. The female was vigorously scratching the debris using her toes like two leaf rakes, flinging the dust and pellets from out the now enlarged doorway. She was cleaning the box!

That pair of owls successfully reared five owlets to fledging that season. Now all of my boxes have this design and no other as there is no longer a need to clean the boxes. Plus, the cleaning is part of the nest building and pair bonding process. Exactly what a newlywed human husband or wife does to a first home: He or she gives it a thorough scrubbing, top to bottom.

FYI, the owl pellets have value to help one offset the cost of the box. Just call your local Jr. High school biology teacher and inform them that you have owl pellets. They will buy all you have. Going rate? Between $3.50 to $5 per pellet! The students dissect them and study the quantitative total.

There are many methods to sterilize the pellets before dissection. Here is the most efficient method I have found. Pour one cap of bleach in a red solo cup and fill 3/4 full of tap water. Add the pellet and leave it in there over night. The next day, pour out the water, then drop the pellets on some newspaper. It will now come apart easily and is quite sterile.

The last advantage to an 8-inch door way cut to the deck is that occasionally there will be an early heat wave.  April and May heat is tough on young owls as they cannot fly away yet to a shady tree yet and must suffer the temperature inside the box. This is where a tree mounted box is better than the pole mount option. The pole mount is better that the tree mount because the box can be installed and directed wherever the best spot is for both parties.

My most popular barn owl box includes a wireless night vision RF camera. I stumbled onto the idea long before internet technology was around when I put a baby monitor camera in my father-in-law’s barn owl box and wired it to his TV. My father-in-law Tony is a wonderful man, but holds no special affinity for birds other than fried chicken.

Soon a pair of barn owls moved in.

Video Systems for Backyard Birding and Owl Viewing

In short fashion Ol’ Tony was calling all his relatives back in the motherland of Ohio, gushing about how much fun it was to have the birds courting on his television screen. I saw enthusiasm in a man who is not particularly enthusiastic. Back then, it required a trip to a “spy supply shop” and $3,200 worth of surveillance equipment and to make a camera enabled box, but now this gear is readily available and affordable. If you’ll allow me to boast a bit, Cornell University of Ornithology attributes the original concept of “consumer” owl monitoring to yours truly. (A feather in my cap?)

Today, thousands of my nesting boxes with night-vision video cameras have been purchased and installed in back yards, natural history museums, and connected to TVs in science class rooms.

Here’s an odd fact:  Because of the way owls consume their prey, their “pellet” droppings are a discarded in the shape of balls of fur, with bones and other undigested material more of less undisturbed. You’ll find on Amazon dozens of “pelletiers” who sell owl pellets to science classes for three dollars apiece! They are used primarily for dissection, which teaches students about the food chain and nature’s symbiotic ecosystems.

About 10 years ago, one of my clients’ grandsons was pondering a science project for a college class, and when he saw the owls on the TV he commented, “We could patch that video feed into the Internet!” In short order, he did so.

Their streaming owl-cam experienced 21 million “hits” in 9 months, and 42 million in two seasons. They named the pair of owls after a comedy radio troupe, “Molly and McGee,” with Molly as the star. Don’t believe me? Google “Molly the Owl.”

Barn Owl, Tyto Alba and its variants are found globally on every continent but Antarctica, especially farms, ranches and cities. I hear there is a pair nesting in Yankee stadium. I could easily install a string of owls boxes starting with one near this nest and bridge the owl population to any surrounding neighbor hood.

If I had my way, I would be allowed to extend this to the state and to the entire the North American continent. And why not? No other method kills more rodents with so little effort. One builds or buys and installs an owl box. One and done.

Tom Stephan works in the green industry treating sick trees to improve their vigor and vitality through anti compaction and soil fertility. He is a former certified arborist, a master falconer, and has incurable minimalist tendencies. Connect with him at BarnOwlBoxes , and read all of Tom’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS blogs.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Large Scale Food Forests and Reforestation


Fungi are the teeth of the forest

One of the first principles of Permaculture is disturbing as little as possible in regards to the natural environment within any ecosystem where it is introduced. Perhaps one of the most controversial propositions of the author in their book, is the introduction of large scale food forests, not only in areas where reforestation is needed, but in other areas where poverty and a notable inability to access fresh fruits and vegetables prohibits large percentages of the population from enjoying a healthy diet.

First and foremost it must be noted that food forests, when properly introduced, are in and of themselves a wholly and completely natural environment consisting of completely natural ecosystems. Food forests, when properly established, provide everything that is needed for all life, from the soil itself, to plant life and through all of the lower forms of animal life and move all the way up to provisions for the benefit of humanity at the same time. Food forests are capable of providing an ample supply of food with little or even no interference at all from human beings, while at the same time being wholly and completely self-sustaining.

Among the most well-known food forests is the one established at the Permaculture Institute established by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. Once established, this food forest was allowed to grow unencumbered and unimpeded by human intervention for a period over fifteen years. During that time, not only did the food forest maintain complete ecological sustainability, but integrated itself into surrounding ecosystems as well, providing proof that these food forests can continue to grow and produce completely without human intervention.

There is an additional food forest growing in Vietnam in a location that has not been revealed directly, that has been maintained by one family for well over three hundred years that they can verify. At the time that Geoff Lawton, who was one of the original architects of the food forest at the Permaculture Institute, visited the food forest there in Vietnam, the work to maintain it seemed to be rather strenuous … as apparently it took the combined efforts of the couple overseeing that food forest. Never mind the fact that they were in their eighties … and still, despite their advanced years, were fully capable of maintaining a relatively ancient, incredibly productive food forest.

The same certainly cannot be said for more “traditional” monocrop farming. The more traditional farming methods are both labor intensive and very harmful environmentally, even on most “organic” farms. But what would happen to any of these types of farms if they were left unattended for hundreds or even thousands of years? Would they still be capable of producing a viable crop? In the case of “traditional” farming methods, the answer is most certainly a resounding “NO!” but in the case of the food forests?

Sparse grounds are ripe for food forest implementation

To answer that question, the work of Geoff Lawton will be referenced yet again. Among his many films and lectures, are one where he revisits a food forest in Southern Morocco. By all estimates, this food forest was established sometime around the turn of the eras … that is to say, somewhere around the time of the Christ or the period right at the change between “Before Common Era” and the “Common Era”. This food forest has existed for some two thousand years, and it is almost certain that there have been decades if not centuries wherein it was not tended to by humans. Yet still, to this day, it continues to provide an amazing bounty of fruits and other produce, including the venerable grapes and olives the region is so famous for producing today.

These days, there is an intense focus on carbon dioxide, often at the expense of other, equally relevant discussions. The point of this article is not to debate the many different variants of carbon, or their impact or lack thereof on the environment. It should be noted however, that reforestation is seen as one means of increasing the environmental sustainability of the human presence on the planet, while also decreasing … or at least balancing and maintaining reasonable levels of Carbon Dioxide.

Reforestation over a great portion of the planet is already being discussed on a great many levels. Greenbelts are increasingly common in cities, in addition to small, community farms. Oddly enough however, there has been no concerted push to introduce food forests into either of these environmental equations. If reforestation and even forestation is going to occur though, why not introduce wholly natural ecosystems that are going to greatly increase the symbiotic relationship between plant life and animal life … including the human species?

Granted, there may be regulatory issues in some of the larger urban population centers, primarily centered around individual rights and responsibilities. Who would be held accountable when someone was to discover a half a worm in their apple? If someone were to get sick due to their consumption of the all natural growth in these food forests, would the taxpayer be put on the hook for all of their pain and emotional suffering? While it may seem almost laughable, reading such madness in print, these remain very real considerations that local governments must take into consideration before allowing for such an undertaking.

Still, in larger, more isolated areas of the country and the world where reforestation efforts are needed or even already under way, what is the harm in introducing wholly natural and complete ecosystems into the local environments? The food forests, by their very nature, would prohibit a great many of the devastating issues in some states, where the prohibitions prevent even the removal of dead brush, often resulting in catastrophic fires. (See the Yellowstone Fire as only one early example of good intentions gone bad

The nature of the food forests is such that they would utilize natural, albeit man-made watering, an ample supply of moisture from the natural runoff and moisture, a lively and healthy ecosystem within the soil itself, and even provide natural homes for much of the natural wildlife that people and governments are so rightly concerned about. Even if the introduction of large-scale food forests does create some initial controversy, it remains, as far as the author is concerned, a viable option that is worthy of much more than just passing consideration in this day and age of Sustainable Development.

As always, please leave any of your thoughts, comments, questions and suggestions in the comment section below so that they can be addressed individually, and perhaps even used for consideration in future articles. None of this work would be possible without you, the reader, and as such, your thoughts and considerations are the most important aspect of any articles published herein.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


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