Owl rescue centres across South Africa regularly remove baby owls – also known as owlets – from cellular towers because of the danger to both the owls and the mobile operator technicians.
Owl Rescue Centre recently announced that they rescued two baby owls from a cellular tower in Meyerton.
Many people questioned why it’s necessary to remove the owls from the towers. After all, the owls went to a lot of trouble to carefully select a suitable home to rear their young.
Danelle Murray, founder of Owl Rescue Centre based in Hartbeespoort, explained they never remove birds from their natural territory.
However, in the case of cellular towers, it is better to remove and relocate owls to a safer environment.
Murray said cellphone towers are a favourite nesting site for owls.
The parents initially enter the tower at the topmost point of the structure through a pigeonhole or top door, that is often left open.
The female makes her way down the tower – all the way to the bottom – to lay her eggs on the ground.
The only way out is through the top pigeonhole, which is 15m to 30m back up the tapering column.
The male hunts and provides food for the female and the baby owls.
“This scenario works fine, until things start to change and a risk develops for the family,” she said.
There are regular maintenance and upgrades at mobile towers which are done by network technicians from the mobile operators or sub-contractors.
When these technicians see an owl family, they typically phone the Owl Rescue Centre.
“For people to work inside these towers when there are owls nesting poses a risk to the owls and to the technicians,” she said.
The technicians can accidentally step on an owlet when they enter the tower, or drop equipment down the tower that may fall on the owls.
An upset parent can also attack a technician and cause them to fall or sustain injuries.
“The owls often sit on the step ladder inside a pitch-black tower. The technician may unknowingly place his hand on the owl while climbing up, which could prompt a reaction from the owl to grab and claw,” Murray explained.
“If a technician had to get injured while performing his tasks – or worse, fall down the tower – the liability to the cellular company is huge.”
For safety reasons, technicians are not allowed to enter towers if any owls are found inside.
The cellular companies have strict policies regarding wildlife nesting inside their towers.
As part of these policies, technicians must immediately contact a designated, permitted, and experienced wildlife rescue entity for assistance if they see an owl inside a tower.
“Several contractors have access to these towers. This creates risks because of superstition, persecution, and trade of the owls. These owls are extremely vulnerable in this situation,” she said.
Another problem is that baby owls need to develop muscle strength to fly, which is a challenge in the narrow and tapering towers.
“Some, with a bit of luck, develop the skill to climb up the ladder and cables and make it out the top, but not all of them are this fortunate,” Murray said.
“In the numerous rescues we have done inside these towers we found carcasses and remains of perished owlets.”