[WATCH] ‘Owl’-righty then! Buskett gets ready for the return of the barbaġann

Barn owls were driven into extinction from Malta almost four decades ago but now, a project run by hunting organisation FKNK seeks to reintroduce the bird of prey into the wild. Raymond Cordina recounts how this will happen

Re-introducing the barn owl into the wild at Buskett
Re-introducing the barn owl into the wild at Buskett
Raymond Cordina (left) inside one of the enclosures he is building to house the barn owls
Raymond Cordina (left) inside one of the enclosures he is building to house the barn owls

Barn owls could return to the wild at Buskett and the man behind the five-year project hopes the first birds will do so by the end of summer.

Raymond Cordina is confident that the conservation project, which is the first of its kind to reintroduce an animal species in Malta, will reap the desired results.

The barn owl was driven to extinction from Malta, with the last recorded breeding pair in the wild harking back to the early 1980s.

Cordina, a trapper, says the project is modelled on similar initiatives undertaken by the Barn Owl Trust in the UK.

The Malta project is the brainchild of the Federation for Hunters, Trappers and Conservationists (FKNK) and is part-financed by the government.

FKNK has built three temporary aviaries in Buskett next to ir-Razzett tal-Bagħal
FKNK has built three temporary aviaries in Buskett next to ir-Razzett tal-Bagħal

In Buskett, Cordina shows us around the three temporary aviaries that have been put up next to ir-Razzett tal-Bagħal; a restored farmhouse.

The aviaries will be ready in the coming weeks and they will initially host two pairs of barn owls that were born and raised in captivity in Malta.

“The parent stock will be brought here after they are cleared by a vet and ornithologist and I hope they get comfortable enough to start mating soon after, although the summer months may not be ideal,” Cordina says.

The aviaries contain a shaded area with solid sides and ceiling and an ‘open’ area with metal bars that allow sunlight and rain to filter through. The structures are temporary and were built around existing shrubs and trees.

Cordina explains the importance of having an aviary that is part open: “It helps the owls get accustomed to the natural environment and it is also important for them to identify with changes in night and day.”

Each aviary will have a removable nesting area in the shaded part and a pinhole camera will be live-streaming developments inside the nest.

Cordina says that when owls are born, the mother initially feeds them morsels of meat she would have cut off from the prey. But after a few weeks, the spoon-feeding stops and the mother owl just throws in the whole prey, usually a mouse, which the chicks then feed on.

The aviaries have solid sides for privacy but are also part-open with bars to allow light and rain to filter through
The aviaries have solid sides for privacy but are also part-open with bars to allow light and rain to filter through

“It is at this stage of development that I will be transferring the whole nest outside the aviary and thus introducing the chicks into the wild. At this point, when they leave the nest, they are out in the open,” Cordina says.

Now bereft of their mother, the chicks will be fed dead mice by hand but this process is not straightforward. Cordina explains that he will use a peephole at the back of the nest to drop in the food so that the chicks will not be able to see him.

“I don’t want them to associate me with food because this can be harmful for their eventual survival in the wild,” he says.

Feeding in this way will continue for a while, even when the barn owls start venturing out into the woodland in search of their own food. It is a technique called ‘hacking’, which ensures the juvenile birds can still find food until they are fully self-sufficient.

This process will be repeated each time the parent owls breed. “Many people who raise barn owls in captivity manage to have chicks, so it really should not be a problem for us,” Cordina says.

He explains that owls are not very migratory and expects them to remain in the Buskett area but some may decide to go further into the neighbouring countryside.

“The owls will hunt primarily for mice in Buskett and for this reason, the placing of rodenticide has been stopped in the woodland because it will be harmful for the birds if they consumed half-poisoned mice,” Cordina says.

The hope is that the owls released in the wild will mate and prosper, something that is not alien to the Buskett area, it seems.

Those who shoot on protected birds cannot call themselves hunters, they are criminals Raymond Cordina

“The Verdala Palace curator was telling me last time that he recalls seeing a barn owl nest on the palace grounds many years ago,” Cordina recounts.

Asked about the irony of having a hunters’ organisation involved in a conservation project, Cordina says that EU directives recognise hunting as a tool for conservation.

“We hunt and trap birds that are allowed at law and this is sustainable. But hunters help preserve the natural habitat by taking care of it and we also ensure it does not turn into blocks of concrete,” Cordina argues, adding that hunters also plant endemic trees and restore rubble walls.

The barn owl is a protected species and he insists any hunter would enjoy seeing this bird reintroduced in the wild.

“This is FKNK’s gift to Malta and I am certain hunters will be proud of this. Those who shoot on protected birds cannot call themselves hunters, they are criminals,” Cordina says.

He is hopeful the project will reap the desired results. The success rate of the UK’s Barn Owl Trust project is 60%. This means that six out of every 10 birds introduced into the wild became self-sufficient and survived.

“If we manage to have two or three breeding pairs in the wild it would be a great success,” Cordina says.

Over the coming years, Buskett’s abject silence at night may very well be interrupted by the screeching sounds of barn owls, providing a welcome addition to Malta’s biodiversity.

What is a barn owl?

Barn owls are birds of prey that feed on small mammals, which in Malta will primarily be mice.

They are around 250mm tall from head to feet and have extremely sensitive hearing.

They have a heart-shaped face that collects sounds. The barn owl has a flexible neck that allows it to turn its head 180 degrees each way.

Feathers are usually white on the under parts and light brown and grey on the back.

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