The same family dines at Haute Enchilada Café every night but never picks up the check. And that’s fine with chef/owner Kim Solano because this family pays its way by keeping rodents at bay.

Haute Enchilada, located in Moss Landing, California, about 15 miles north of Monterey, uses barn owls as part of an overall eco-friendly strategy. “I’ve learned that when you use poison it affects the whole food chain,” Solano says. “We also have a dog-friendly patio, and my own dog is on the property every day. I don’t want them getting into poison.”

To find a greener solution, Solano contacted local wildlife experts Rebecca Dmytryk and Duane Titus of Humane Wildlife Control. They took a three-pronged approach to eco-friendly rodent control, which involved equipping Haute Enchilada with wildlife-safe rodenticide and sealing all holes measuring a half-inch or larger. 

Then, Dmytryk and Titus erected a barn owl box on top of a 20-foot pole on the Haute Enchilada property. (A barn owl box is a plywood structure that must be at least 29 by 24 inches.) Within days a pair of barn owls—named Lotte and Teco—took up residence, and shortly thereafter Lotte laid the first of eight eggs, which she looked after while the male delivered fresh meals of gopher, rat, mouse, and vole.

“It’s shocking how much food the male owl brings to the female,” Solano says. “I’ve noticed a difference. We have a big garden area beneath the owl box, and I haven’t noticed as many holes burrowed in the ground there.”

Many species of birds feed on small mammals, but Dmytryk says owls are especially good candidates for the job of restaurant rodent control. “They readily take to manmade structures and tend to put up with human activity near their nest sites,” she says. 

And while the owls are reducing the number of rodents, they also attract customers. “It’s amazing the people this pair of lovebirds has brought in,” Solano says. “People get a kick out of them.”

The Haute Enchilada owls have also become social media stars. An infrared camera mounted inside the box allows patrons to watch the owls on a monitor at the restaurant. The owls can also be viewed 24/7 via live stream on YouTube. 

Although Haute Enchilada is on a large West Coast property, Dmytryk thinks rodent control via owl could work for restaurants in urban areas in almost any part of the country. “Barn owls are found nationally, almost anywhere there are open fields,” she says. “They are not a forest bird. They need open meadows and fields because they hunt. But the open field could be a high school sports field or a city park. We have found them in very urban areas.”

The positive environmental impact of using owls for rodent control goes beyond keeping poisons out of the food chain. Erecting nesting boxes can help restore populations of barn owls, which are listed as endangered in seven Midwestern states. Dmytryk says the species lose good nesting sites when older trees with large cavities are cleared away.

Barn owls, like restaurant guests, just want a comfortable place to hang out and a good meal; something Solano is happy to deliver. “It has been a hundred-thousand percent positive,” she says. “There is not one negative thing about it.”

Feature, Sustainability