DEAR JOAN: We are very bothered by rats eating our vegetables and fruit, and invading our chicken coop at night. Our neighborhood is also overrun with squirrels.

I've been wondering about putting up an owl box to entice barn owls to nest. My brother-in-law used to make them for the vineyard where he worked in Paso Robles, and they were always successful.

Is this the answer to our problem? Do the owls also eat baby birds or eggs from nests? This we would not like.

Carol Small

Saratoga

DEAR CAROL: In general, I would say that a barn owl is just what the doctor ordered. Specifically, however, you'll need to answer some questions about your yard and whether the box would likely be occupied.

In this photo from last year, Bharath Gunasekaran of Fremont, adds wood chips to a barn owl box he built as part of his Boy Scout Eagle project.
In this photo from last year, Bharath Gunasekaran of Fremont, adds wood chips to a barn owl box he built as part of his Boy Scout Eagle project. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

The main question is, do you live in an area where barn owls are likely come? Do you have the right habitat, the right location for the box and enough food to support a pair of nesting owls or more?

If you live in a highly urban area, you may not be able to attract a barn owl, although last year, a nesting pair raised four babies on a protected ledge of a South San Francisco hotel. Having a lot of space won't guarantee owls, either.

You'll need a place as far away from household activity and road traffic as possible. You can put the box on a pole at least 8 feet off the ground, but don't put it too close to trees where great horned owls might lurk.

Position the entrance of the box away from prevailing winds, and don't include a perch on the box. The owls don't need it, but the great horned owl, the barn owl's main predator, can use it to reach in to grab baby owls.

You can try a box at different places and see how it does. You also can have more than one box, but set them about 100 feet apart.

Food may be the most important thing that attracts owls to an area. A barn owl will eat a gopher every night and a few other smaller critters. When the owls have a family, that number goes up significantly. They will happily feed on rodents, but it's doubtful they'll help with the squirrels. Owls hunt at night when the squirrels are safely snoozing.

They shouldn't bother your chickens, which should be safely inside when the owls are out hunting, but they will eat other birds.

One last thing -- make sure neither you nor your neighbors are using poison baits to kill rats. The poison can easily be passed along to the owls, killing them along with the rats.

Now is a good time to start working on getting a box. The owls will start reconnecting with their mates in winter and nesting shortly after the new year.

DEAR JOAN: My husband and I found this dead bird on our back deck. From my Western Bird Field Guide it seems to be a cardinal, but I have never seen one in the Bay Area. The guide did say they are found in Southern California. Have you ever seen or heard of this? Global warming?

Kathy Irwin

San Carlos

DEAR KATHY: Either someone is playing a practical joke on you or you're playing one on me.

The beautiful red cardinal is not seen in this area. The bird in your photo is a fake.

Is this cardinal real or fake?
Is this cardinal real or fake? (Courtesy of Kathy Irwin)

Are you by chance a Stanford alumni who knows a Cal grad with a grudge?

Contact Joan Morris at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com or 1700 Cavallo Road, Antioch, CA 94509. Follow her at Twitter.com/AskJoanMorris.