Allyn Bagu lay in bed, listening to the creatures nesting under the roof of her new apartment in suburban Johannesburg. She could hear them scrabbling around and their ominous screeches.
One day, her sister-in-law saw one of them outside their third-floor window and screamed. It was an owl.
“I was thinking of moving,” Bagu said, shuddering. “It’s bad luck.”
Owls are reviled in many parts of Africa as harbingers of death. In South Africa, many believe that when an owl lands on the roof and hoots, it has been sent by a sangoma, or witch doctor, delivering a fatal curse.
Bagu’s husband called EcoSolutions, a company with a “Ghostbusters"-style relocation service.
It turned out there were 10 owls in Bagu’s dark, warm attic. Owl catcher Hussein Mduduzi, jumping from roof strut to roof strut, managed to catch two owlets, but the eight grown owls flew off.
Mduduzi descended, gently carrying the owlets in a box. The youngsters, their baby fluff half replaced by feathers, looked tatty and nervous. Their heart-shaped faces swiveled about, gazing with large, dark eyes at the creature who’d taken them from their home. Bagu’s tiny daughter burst into tears, ran and snuggled up to her mother.
Tendai Remwa, EcoSolutions’ manager, tried to calm down Bagu and her daughter.
“These owls are just like any other birds,” she said. “It’s very bad to take the babies away from their mothers.”
She explained that the mature owls would return unless the entry holes were closed and owl nesting boxes were installed nearby. Bagu looked skeptical, but anything was better than having them in the attic.
Remwa, an owl lover, hopes to erase old superstitions about owls. The company’s nonprofit Township Owls Project is using the birds to help control the rampant, and at times dangerous, rat population in crowded townships, and educating people about their value.
“If somebody is afraid, I explain, ‘I’m African, like you. I deal with owls every single day. Nothing bad has happened to me or my family.’”
When residents refuse to accept the installation of nesting boxes for the owlets taken from their ceilings, EcoSolutions rescues them to prevent them being killed. They are handed to the Township Owls Project, to be placed in nesting boxes in township schools, which are deserted and peaceful at night.
Schoolchildren are taught how to feed and care for the owls, in the hope they’ll grow to understand owls and even become their protectors. Since the project began in 1998, about 84,000 children have been involved, feeding and caring for owls.
Six years ago, Lerato Ramathopa, then 13, announced to her family that she would be caring for barn owls at school.
“They said to me I was going to die soon and I was going to bring bad luck on the family,” she said.
The wondrous weeks that followed changed her life. She learned how to feed the owlets and clean their box. She would hold the owlets, touching their down, and watching as their necks twisted 270 degrees.
“My uncle and aunt were saying because I have the courage to hold an owl, I’m involved in witchcraft,” she said. “But I started developing a love for owls, so I didn’t care what they said. It had a big impact on my life.
“We would hold them by their claws, not too tight so as not to hurt them, but not too loose, or they would fly away. It felt great.”
Owl catcher Mduduzi, who grew up in a village in KwaZulu-Natal province, remembers huddling in bed in a circular hut at night, hearing the hoots of owls. It meant there was something evil and dangerous lurking outside. He nestled down in fear.
“People would think that maybe someone sent that owl as a curse or maybe as a sign that someone would die,” he said.
When Mduduzi began rescuing owls five years ago, he said, he was “nervous, because I didn’t trust owls.” To begin with, he said, it was just a job that others were afraid to take, in an economy where jobs are scarce.
But after years of climbing up to roofs and reaching into small dark spaces to save owlets, he’s learned to love them. He’s even training to become the country’s first black owl ringer, learning how to place a band on a bird’s leg so the owl can be traced and identified.
He teaches people that owls are like any other birds, except that they get rid of an everyday evil: the large rats that crawl into people’s shacks and eat their food, clothing and shoes. There have been reports of rats gnawing off a baby’s fingers, or elderly and disabled people dying after being set upon by rats.
“I tell you, the rats in the townships are a nightmare. No one would want to have that. They’re big, like small rabbits. They just terrorize the townships,” EcoSolutions’ Remwa said. “People actually sleep in their shoes, because they’re afraid of rats.”
Explanations from the shy and soft-spoken Mduduzi seem to quell fears. After he tells people about owls and their behavior, he said, most people agree to accept breeding boxes nearby.
“People in townships have got a problem with owls, and they use rat poison. We go there and explain how the owls work, how the owls eat rats,” he said. “So now they know that owls are not dangerous to people.”
Some animal rights groups oppose the release of barn owls into townships, saying some have been killed.
Jonathan Haw, director of EcoSolutions, says that in the long term, the owls’ best hope in South Africa is survival in urban communities that are educated about their value as rat predators. He said one theory that owls would be better off set free somewhere like Kruger National Park made no sense scientifically.
Moving rescued young owls to national parks with finite rodent prey would put more pressure on the local owl populations; the introduced owls might survive at the expense of the national park’s owls, he said. And mature birds released far from their home nest would try to fly back, at risk of being killed by territorial owls on the way, or dying of starvation, or being hit by a car.
He contends that townships, where huge numbers of rats thrive on dumped trash, make the ideal urban habitat for barn owls. Spotted eagle owls, which need some greenery, do better in suburban gardens, where the organization installs boxes for them.
In Alexandra, a crowded township with a serious rat problem a few miles from the upscale Sandton shopping mall, schoolboy Michael Rampho, 14, says his grandmother handed on the old superstition that owls are evil.
At his school on the border of Alexandra, known affectionately as Alex, he overcomes his fear that owls will attack him, carefully following Mduduzi’s instructions on how to pick up a rescued owlet by its feet and gently place it in its nesting box.
“I felt good because it felt soft. I was kind of relieved because it didn’t do anything bad,” Michael said.
Each day for three weeks, he and his friends will feed it. The students name the bird Razzaq, or “provider,” in the language of one pupil, Hussein Tyrone, 13, who said boys in his Midrand neighborhood sometimes throw stones at owls.
“I just say it’s like a normal bird. They say I’m lying, but I convince them to leave it alone.”
When Ramathopa, the student, sees people in Alexandra throwing stones at an owl, she dashes up to stop them.
“They call them ‘things.’ I try to explain that these birds are harmless, you have to let it go, because they have a right to live in our environment,” she said.
Last year, an owl was somehow trapped in one of her school’s classrooms.
“Everyone was screaming. Even the teachers were a mess. The principal was even afraid of it, saying, ‘Get rid of that thing!’ I just went and picked it up. I released the owl and it flew away to Alex.
“I’m not afraid of owls.”