The Birds and the Bees: The Barn Owl Box Company Creates Innovative Nest Box

Dr. Richard Raid, researcher for the University of Florida, pulls up to a large wooden box on an eight foot post in a sugar cane field just south of Lake Okeechobee, points to the cloud of honeybees roiling in the air near its entrance, and shakes his head. “That barn owl box had two broods raised in it last year, but the honeybees took it over. What’s worse, they are Africanized bees, which means there is no going near the nest, and any birds in there were likely killed.”

Africanized bees are increasingly competing with cavity nesting birds such as barn owls for nest boxes. Raid, an enthusiastic promulgator of using barn owls for rodent control, had nearly two thirds of the 120 nest boxes that he has installed in the agricultural fields of southern Florida gradually commandeered by bees.

The bees make working in the fields dangerous to humans. Two years ago, a farmworker was stung to death while running machinery near a nest in Belle Glade, Florida. Curiously, Richard had noticed that a plastic nest box donated by The Barn Owl Box Company never attracted bees, but did allow barn owls to raise two broods.

Around that time, organic sugar cane growers in the area began to switch from wooden boxes to the plastic ones because they had noticed the same lack of bees. Today, they use the plastic boxes exclusively.

In 2015, Dr. Mark Stanback, behavioral ecologist with Davidson College in North Carolina, began to use the new plastic boxes in his study of African hornbills in Namibia.

“My initial wooden nest boxes worked well for the most part,” Stanback says, “but quite a few were literally eaten down to the screws by termites. Another issue was they attracted honeybees. Someone told me honeybees don’t like trying to attach comb to slick surfaces, so I looked into plastic and found The Barn Owl Box Company. In the first year, the birds were apparently hesitant to try the boxes. However, by this year, these modified screech-owl boxes are very popular with the hornbills. No bees, lots of birds. A win-win.”

In South America, many species of parrots lose nesting sites to the bees. Researchers such as Caroline Efstathion, biologist with Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, have been using permethrin in Brazil to repel bees from parrot boxes and pheromones to attract them to bee boxes, a method called push-pull. The plastic nest box is also attracting interest from such projects.

“I originally designed the Barn Owl Box as a long-lasting alternative to wooden boxes to encourage more widespread use of barn owls for rodent control,” says Mark Browning, the designer. “That has, happily, turned out to be the case. Thousands of farms have installed them for rodent control. But the news coming in from these various projects regarding this added benefit is very gratifying.”

The Barn Owl Box Company produces heat resistant, plastic nest boxes for barn owls, screech owls, kestrels, bluebirds, and a variety of songbirds.