Wildlife

Owls Being Raised to Combat Deadly Human Disease

Chilean officials are enlisting squadrons of owls to combat a rat-borne plague that has killed 15 of the 36 people infected since September.

This deadly and highly contagious strain of hantavirus, carried by long-tailed pygmy rice rats, has been spread into residential areas after wildfires earlier this year destroyed the rodents’ habitats.

So the forest service is stepping up efforts to breed and release Chilean white owls and Magellanic horned owls to hunt down the infected rats.

The owls feed almost exclusively on rodents, and neither the rats nor the owls become ill from the hantavirus.

But some Chileans retain traditional fears about owls, bringing resistance to the project.

“If an owl hooted near a house, it used to mean that someone would die in that house. But in reality it is the opposite — the owls are actually protecting homes,” Lagos Peñuelas National Reserve administrator Aldo Valdivia Ahumada told The Santiago Times.

He called the owls “great biological regulators” that are far more sustainable than the use of poisons to combat the rats.

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