Birds of prey, snakes among candidates to rid park of squirrels

Santa Barbara officials looking for alternatives to pesticide

Joshua Molina
News-Press staff writer
From the Saturday, August 7, 2004 issue of The Santa Barbara News-Press.

   Santa Barbara's top city officials are considering falcons, snakes or other pesticide alternatives to reduce the squirrel population at the Mesa's Shoreline Park.

    Spurred by the public concerns about using pesticides in popular places, city officials plan to meet with a falconer next week to get an estimate on how much it would cost to bring the predator to the park to scare off the squirrels.

    "A wide variety of predation methods are available, including birds of prey such as falcons and red-tailed hawks or even a variety of nonpoisonous snakes, all of which feed on rodents such as squirrels," City Councilman Das Williams said in an e-mail to Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Jeff Cope. "Providing large perches for wild birds of prey is also a solution used at wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. I am confident that the squirrel overpopulation problem at Shoreline Park can be solved in a safer and more efficient way."

    Santa Barbara Mayor Mary Blum said she believes owl boxes may be the answer because they will attracts owls to the area to keep an eye on the squirrels.

    "That's pretty neat," she said. "I think it's a good idea. I walk there almost every morning. It's a huge problem right now."

    The city says between 300 and 500 squirrels are taking over Shoreline Park, weakening the ocean-top bluffs. The cliff is already decaying naturally by about 1 inch per year, city officials said.

    The city is using a three-phase approach to kill the squirrels: traps, natural corn-oil bait deadly to rodents, and a pesticide.

    Right now, the city is in phase two. Officials said that if the natural poison kills enough squirrels, they may not need to use the stronger rodenticide bait. The traps have killed about 14 of the squirrels, and officials don't know the precise number that have died from the bait because the squirrels die underground.

    The city's concerns go beyond erosion of the cliffs. Officials note that rodents can transmit the bubonic plague.

    "Bubonic plaque is found in our wild rodent population throughout California," said Dick Davis, public health biologist for the California Department of Health Services. "In the southern half of the state, ground squirrels play a major role in that disease."

    Mr. Davis said the chances of sq1uirrels transmitting the plague at Shoreline Park are remote. But there have been cases, he said, in Ventura years ago.

    He endorses the city's current approach.

    "The ground squirrel population there is outrageously high," Mr. Davis said. "It is really a situation that is out of control."

    He is skeptical about the use of falcons or other birds.

    "There are really only a few predators," he said. "No. 1 is coyotes, and obviously coyotes are not an option for the park. Secondly, red-tailed hawks, but I would guess that is probably not an environment suitable for them."

    Gopher snakes are a possibility, he said, but they are not a solution.

    "They can only eat so much." He said. "Gopher snakes may eat one ground squirrel, and it may last them two or three weeks."

    Diane Cannon, a Santa Barbara wildlife rehabilitator for more the 20 years, said she prefers natural remedies over poison baits.

    "I think using a bird of prey - they need to eat - is a natural way to do it," she said. "I would certainly prefer that to any other kind of poison control."

    Ms. Cannon said squirrels have to pay the price for human mistakes.

    "My real suggestion would be to put up signs and tell people not to feed the squirrels," she said.

    "The problem isn't the squirrels. The problem is people. We have interfered with the natural balance, and guess what? The balance isn't there anymore."

    Santos Escobar, the parks superintendent, said the city has a meeting planned for next week with Ronin Air Falconry Services. The company's owner, Jeff Diaz, said his collection of trained raptors could solve the problem without harming people or pets. He said he has trained eagle owls that are effective.

    "It could definitely could take care of those squirrels 100 percent in a safe, environmental way," he said.

    "The only raptors I would be using are balanced, socialized birds that are used to humans."

    In the meantime, crews spent Friday adjusting the bait stations because the corn pellets were spilling into other areas, , where birds were eating them.

    He said that crews attached elbows to the 10 existing black tubes filled with bait and added a pipe to lengthen the bait station. Crews repositioned the pipes, pointing them farther away from the park.

    He has one message for the public: Don't feed the squirrels.

    "It is very important not to feed these guys," Mr. Escobar said.

    "I know the look cute and fuzzy, but we don't want anyone to get bit."