Family left devastated after beautiful 'Pot Plant Owl' is killed by rat poison

By Jacques Myburgh
05 February 2016

The Eccles family from Johannesburg used to have some unusual guests that nested on their stoop every year. But everything has changed, allegedly thanks to a neighbour’s war on rats.

The Eccles family from Johannesburg used to have some unusual guests that nested on their stoop every year. But everything has changed, allegedly thanks to a neighbour’s war on rats.

Allan and Tracy Eccles woke up one morning in 2008 to find a spotted eagle owl on their stoop. The owl had laid one of three eggs in their potplant.

From then on, for three months every year, Tracy and her husband watched the owl raise her owlets in the potplant.

They dubbed the owl PPO (pot plant owl) and called her mate Pappa.

The owl family made headlines around the world and Tracy received messages from as far away as Poland.

In January this year when the owl family was visiting Tracy noticed PPO behaving strangely.

“I went up the stairs and saw PPO sitting on the balcony rail,” Tracy says. “She looked ill and was struggling to breathe. She uttered a terrible sound.”

Tracy approached PPO and confirmed something was wrong with her when she didn’t try to fly away.

“I wanted to catch her because I knew she wasn’t going to make it. When I got really close she flew off in the direction of the swamp behind our house. That was the last I saw of her,” Tracy says sadly.

When Tracy and Allan hadn’t seen PPO for a few weeks they investigated and found poisoned dead rats in their neighbour’s garden. That’s where PPO had usually hunted.

“We can only assume that the neighbour used rat poison to get rid of rats and that PPO caught a poisoned rat.”

Pot plant owl The family are now worried Papa and the pair's latest chick might share PPO's fate. PHOTO: Supplied

According to Tracy, PPO and her mate had one chick in the past season (2015). “At this stage the chick can catch large insects such as king crickets but she will have to be taught to catch rats. Our biggest worry now is that the chick and Pappa might catch a poisoned rat.”

Tracy says Pappa is still in the area and she suspects that he’s lonely.

“Birds also experience a sense of loss – just as we do,” she says. “Just look at birds birds that have been hit by cars; their mates return to the road and try to bring them back to life.”

Tracy says she’s broken-hearted.

“I’ve often been asked if I wanted to sell my house but because of the owls I always said no.

“For years we warned our neighbours not to use poison but unfortunately they didn’t listen.

“I just can’t describe what PPO and her family meant to us.”

Dr Gerhard  Verdoorn, director of the Griffon Poison Information Centre, doesn’t believe PPO died of poisoning. He says people too quickly assume owls die of poisoning with rat poison, and stresses there are many other factors that can be responsible for their deaths.

“If the owl coughed she probably became infected with Trichomonas gallinae. Owls often pick up this disease when they eat city pigeons. White speckles develop in the mouth and are followed by a cough. The owl dies within four to five days.”

Gerhard says there are various owl-friendly rodent-control preparations on the market.

“It’s critically important that rodent bait is put out in the right way or dogs may be poisoned, although owls won’t be affected.”

*If you have questions about the correct use of rodent-control poisons call Gerhard on 082-446-8946 or send an email to nesher@tiscali.co.za.

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