Goodbye gophers?

Gophers and grass runways can go hand in hand. Airport owners try all sorts of ways to eradicate the rodents, from poison to an all-out assault a la Bill Murray in the movie “Caddyshack.”

Jim Thomas, the airport director at Columbia Airport (O22) near Sonora, Calif., is taking a more natural approach by encouraging owls to roost near the airport. Gophers are a favorite food of owls.

According to Thomas, the idea grew out of 18-year-old Harrison Young’s quest to become an Eagle Scout. Young came to Thomas asking about doing community service at the airport to fulfill the requirements for the rank.

“There are a lot of things to do around an airport,” said Thomas. “First he organized the members of his troop, that is Troop 502 out of Sonora, to come out to the airport and clean up our fly-in-only campground. Then we started looking at the gopher problem on the grass runway.”

According to Thomas, the mounds of dirt kicked up by the gopher population not only present hazards to pilots, but also kill the grass.

“We try to stay ahead of them, but it’s a challenge,” he said. “It’s better to get rid of the gophers and this year we’re going to try to do it without putting poison in the ground.”

Young went online and learned about natural methods of eradicating gophers that included the owl boxes. He built four boxes following specifications provided by the Audubon Society and hung them in the trees adjacent to the sod runway. They will know if the owls have moved in when they see piles of rodent bones at the bases of the trees.

Thomas isn’t worried about bird strikes, as the owls are nocturnal.

“Since the grass runway is unlighted, people don’t use it at night,” he said. “We have a lighted runway that they use instead, so there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Approximately 120 aircraft are based at the airport, which was built in the 1930s. The region is known for outdoor recreation and its rich gold rush history. Thomas hopes the owl boxes will have their first tenants by April so the runway will be in good shape for the airport’s 39th annual Father’s Day Fly-In in June.

For more information: 209 533-5685.

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