Lord Howe Island is an irregularly crescent-shaped body located between Australia and New Zealand that was formed by underwater volcanoes. The island is host to hundreds of animals and plant species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, but for the past century, they have long been threatened by a seemingly impregnable enemy: the common black rat.
Unwanted stowaways that arrived via a ship run aground on June 15, 1918, the rats' consumption of seeds has long devastated the island's palm industry. A bounty was placed on the rodents, essentially turning rattails into an alternative form of currency, as Atlas Obscura points out. In response, residents have been waging a multispecies war for years, which includes light shotguns, fox terriers, and owls shipped over from the United States.
Anticipating that the rat-hunting bonanza might need a boost, in 1927 the U.S. Department of Commerce dispatched a flock of barn owls from San Diego to Lord Howe. (At the time California nurseries were a major importer of kentias.) There the American owls joined the raptorial ranks of Australian barn owls and Tasmanian masked owls, fellow draftees in the war on rats.
American newspapers covered the event with bellicose glee: “Native Owls Off to War On Rats,” wrote the , while praised the owls’ fearsome “war hoot.” It wasn’t just the palm seeds that the owls were meant to rescue, but the people whose livelihoods depended on the sale of those seeds. “It is up to the old-time barn owl to play the hero then and save the inhabitants,” wrote the
As The Guardian noted earlier this year, the fight against the rodent population still hasn't been won, and the plan to eradicate the pests with poisoned cereal has divided the community. Head over to Atlas Obscura to read more.
Feature image via Black Rat Fund