A student with the South Florida Fair’s 2016 Summer Ag-ucation Program examines a vole skull at EREC. Barn owls eat rodents, then regurgitate what isn’t digestible.

 

The Everglades Research and Education Center, south of Belle Glade and run by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), has long been respected.


But the EREC professors and staff members who work in this far-western Palm Beach County facility don’t just conduct crucial agricultural research. In addition, they provide a variety of outreach programs, including those directed at growers and schoolchildren.

“I like to connect kids with agriculture,” said Ann Hartman, agricultural assistant to Professor Richard Raid of EREC’s Department of Plant Pathology.

In mid-June, Hartman conducted a tour of EREC for 40 schoolchildren, 8 to 12 years old, who participated in the South Florida Fair’s 2016 Summer Ag-ucation Program.

Hands-on learning at Everglades Research and Education Center

During the five-day program, the kids traveled to a variety of sites. They worked with farm animals; learned about grooming and animal care; and visited several farms, including a dairy.

Ann Hartman / J.D. Vivian

Ann Hartman stands at the Subsidence Post. In 1924, when this 9-foot concrete post was driven down to bedrock, its top was level with the soil surface. Almost 6 feet of “soil subsidence” has occurred since then. / J.D. Vivian

They also toured EREC – learning about how crops are sprayed with pesticides; visiting the Subsidence Post, to learn about soil depletion; and dissecting barn-owl pellets.

Before the dissections begin, Hartman delivered a presentation about barn owls while showing the kids a video. “One problem we’ve had is bees colonizing the owl boxes,” she explained. “We have to move the owls to other boxes.”

As the video, which depicted the early weeks of a barn owl’s life, aired, she talked. “Owl chicks can eat up to one-and-a-half times their weight each day.”

The owls are flexible, she told the students. Usually, barn owls swallow their prey whole – mostly rats and mice, though rabbits and blackbirds also can serve as a meal. Then they regurgitate the remains: bones and fur. This happens two to three times daily.

“But during times of plenty, barn owls will bite off only the head of their prey. They eat only meat, but in times of shortage, they will eat insects,” Hartman said.

Learning about barn owls can be graphic

She then asked the Ag-ucation summer campers to open the small, tin-foil-wrapped oval in front of each of them. “Let’s see what kind of bones you find.”

On opening their barn-owl pellet, several kids showed visible signs of displeasure, mostly crinkled noses. That didn’t last long, though. Soon they were digging through the hair and small bones, including skulls, and using a chart in front of them to determine which bones were which.

Other statements about barn owls, made by Ann Hartman during her discussion with the Ag-ucation students, included:

  • “Only about 10 percent of barn owls survive to 3 years old.”
  • “Females are larger than males, because the females have to carry the eggs and protect the nest.”
  • “The biggest threats are loss of hunting areas and road kill by cars.”
  • “A great horned owl can kill a barn owl. That’s probably to reduce the competition.”
  • “The (owl) boxes are designed for a specific species of barn owl, based on its size and vulnerability.”