Owls: The Silent Guardians for Oil Palm Farmers at Night

An owl nest box in the middle of an oil palm plantation

Rodent pests can destroy oil palm plantations. Rats eat the base of the palm midrib and its fruits, slowing down the growth of oil palms and, in extreme cases, killing oil palm trees.

Rats can eat approximately 6–14 grams of Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB) in one day. If in one hectare of oil palm plantations there are 100 to 500 rats, which might increase gradually, it is estimated that there will be a loss of oil palm harvest at least 828–962 kg/hectare each year, and the number does not include loose fruits. Furthermore, FFB damaged by rats can increase the levels of free fatty acids in oil palm.

The rat population can be suppressed by bringing natural predators, such as owls, cats, and rat snakes.

Raising owls is seen as a promising method. Owls have been widely used in oil palm plantations because they can control destructive rodents. The cost of raising owls is only half the cost of using chemicals to kill rodents.

Samsudin, 47, an oil palm farmer who lives in Sukerojo Village, Seruyan, Central Kalimantan, raise owls to kill rodent pests in his oil palm plantation.

One owl is estimated to be able to comb an area of ​​up to 30 hectares. With its intelligence and hunting skills, owls can catch five to eight rodents per night.

Using owls for pest control is among the most commonly adopted methods in the palm oil industry, especially among the oil palm plantation companies. Samsudin, who worked for a palm oil company for five years and later became an independent farmer, understood the techniques and benefits of keeping an owl in an oil palm plantation, so he decided to apply it on his own plantation.

An owl nest box in Samsudin’s plantation

According to Samsudin, keeping owls is very easy and does not require a lot of money.

“Owls don’t need to be taken care of. We only need to make gupon (an owl nest box),” said Samsudin. “Later, the owl will come by himself.”

The nest box is usually located far away from the noisy roads but near a stream of water so the owl can easily visit a water source to drink. It’s better if the nest box is not painted in flashy colors because owls prefer a box with natural looks. The box is made of planks, has a zinc roof, and has a door and a small terrace.

“So the box is like a house and the owls just need to bring in branches for the mattress,” said Samsudin with a laugh.

Samsudin has a total land area of ​​13 hectares, located in three different places, thereby he installed three nest boxes to attract owls. He finds that the owls help eradicate rodents in his plantation area as well as in other farmers’ areas around him.

The difference before and after raising owls is quite striking, said Samsudin. Since he built the box to attract owls in 2018, the crop losses due to pests have decreased significantly.

“Since participating in training sessions from Inobu, I have rarely used pesticides anymore,” said Samsudin. He also enjoyed the results. His FFB harvest now has better quality and he can comply with the RSPO principles to produce sustainable palm oil.

Pesticides are harmful to the environment, but rat poison is not always effective in controlling the pests. “Rats prefer to eat oil palm fruits rather than the poison,” added Samsudin.

However, in his village today, Samsudin is probably the only farmer who uses owls to eradicate rats in oil palm plantations, and the local farmers still prefer chemicals or rat poison.

“They are afraid that owls will prey on not only mice but also swallow birds, which are plenty here,” said Samsudin, adding that it is just a misconception about owls. He said that he still tries to promote owls and persuade other farmers to raise owls to eliminate rodents.