(WSVN) - We all know farmers work hard to bring healthy produce to our dinner tables, but the big surprise is who is helping them. In tonight’s special assignment report, the Nightteam’s Kevin Ozebek explains why farmers are giving a hoot about barn owls.

These fledgling barn owls are only a few weeks old.

Dr. Richard Raid: “They hiss like a snake at this stage.”

They’re hissing mad and hungry, and that’s why the owls are worth their weight in gold to South Florida farmers.

Dr. Richard Raid, Barn Owl Program: “A growing barn owl can eat up to one and a half times its weight in prey per day, so that means that a young barn owl, maybe 6 to 7 weeks old, will have to eat four to five rats per night.”

Less rats means less damage to crops.

Dr. Richard Raid: “This is a piece of rodent damaged sugar cane. This is what the growers are actually trying to prevent.”

Dr. Richard Raid is in charge of the Barn Owl Program at the University of Florida.

He works with farmers in the Everglades agricultural area to put barn owl nesting boxes on fence poles. The boxes encourage the owls to live and hunt in their fields.

Dr. Richard Raid: “We now have more than 500 barn owl boxes throughout the Glades, and this number is growing every day.”

Dr. Raid started the program 20 years ago.

Dr. Richard Raid: “In the past, they relied very heavily on rodenticides, which are rat poisons. Our premise was by using the barn owl boxes, we could reduce the rates of rodenticides that were present.”

And it works. With some 460,000 acres of sugar cane, sweet corn and other crops, this wide open land has become barn owl heaven.

Stewart Stein, Wedgworth Farms: “On Wedgworth Farms, we have approximately 100 boxes currently, and when they nest, they’ll have three to four in a nest. The owls are really neat because they really help us control the rats so really beneficial for us.”

At nearby Vert Nature Farms, the acres of baby spinach and leafy salad greens are a temptation for mice and rats, but the owls keep their populations in-check.

Max Tucker, Vert Nature Farms: “We build these boxes. We place them around the farm. The owls can nest there, and at night, they go out, and they hunt. It’s a win-win situation. We give them housing, and they control the mice.”

You can even go online and watch the owls.

This University of Florida owl cam is positioned in a nesting box and shows young owls having a meal.

Dr. Richard Raid: “They are one of the most prodigious rodent predators in the world. They come down with the force of about an 8-pound hammer. They have tremendous hearing. They can hear a mouse on hard packed pavement from 100 feet away.”

Once their meal is digested, the owls spit up what they don’t need. Pellets full of fur and bones!

Dr. Richard Raid: “There’s two matching mandibles from a good sized rat. You can see the skull. You can actually identify down to species the particular rodent those barn owls have eaten.”

With such a big appetite, these owls are truly Mother Nature’s pest control.

Experts say never put up a barn owl box in a suburban area. The owls need wide open spaces to hunt, or they could get hit by cars.

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