Meet The Dog That’s Learning How to Help Save An Endangered Owl

A dog is being specially trained to help scientists conserve one of Australia’s most elusive endangered bird species

by GrrlScientist for Forbes | @GrrlScientist

Tasmanian masked owls (Tyto (novaehollandiae) castanops) are top predators on Tasmania, but virtually nothing is known about what they need to survive, and how they are affected by deforestation.
(Credit: Henry Cook)

Recently, I shared the story of Australia’s critically endangered swift parrot, Lathamus discolor (more here). Basically, in addition to rampant logging of Tasmania’s old growth forests, the biggest challenge faced by swift parrots is predation by nocturnal sugar gliders, Petaurus breviceps, which people introduced into Tasmania from the Australian mainland. Sugar gliders absolutely love sneaking up on swift parrots as they sleep in their nest hollows, and killing and eating them and their chicks. Predictably, sugar gliders are out-competing swift parrots for valuable tree hollows. And since humans are busily bulldozing Tasmania’s old growth forests, there are fewer and fewer tree hollows, so more and more animals are fighting over an increasingly limited resource: housing.

Based on this situation, the Australian National University’s Difficult Birds Research Group predicts that swift parrots will be driven extinct in fewer than 16 years (ref) — a finding that was so distressing that it was the impetus for up-listing the swift parrot to “Critically Endangered”.

It has also motivated a lot of innovative thinking about how to save this iconic little parrot so future generations can enjoy them. For example, the Difficult Birds Research Group invented a nest box with a solar-powered door that closes at night and opens in the morning, thereby protecting its occupants (hopefully swift parrots) from predation and the hollow itself from a hostile take-over by nocturnal sugar gliders.

Adult male Tasmanian masked owl (Tyto (novaehollandiae) castanops), Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia. (Females are larger and more cinnamon-colored.)
(Credit: JJ Harrison / CC BY-SA 3.0)

In addition to protecting swift parrots, the Difficult Birds Research Group also is trying to learn more about the endangered Tasmanian masked owl, Tyto (novaehollandiae) castanops. This endangered owl lives in the same old growth forests as swift parrots, and preys on all sorts of furry beasties, up to and including rabbits, but it has a particular fondness for dining on introduced sugar gliders. This predatory bird is the largest member of the widely distributed barn owl family. It is strictly nocturnal and it lives in challenging terrain, so not much is known about its needs. But we do know that old growth trees with large hollows are essential because its nests are the size of a wine barrel.

“Currently, knowledge of the masked owl’s habitat needs is pieced together from scraps of information, making management of the species difficult,” said Adam Cisterne, a PhD student at the Australian National University who has just begun to research the owls in Tasmania. “Deforestation is presenting a major threat to the birds, so there’s an urgent need to update management practices with reliable information.”

To accomplish this task, the Difficult Birds Research Group is once again thinking outside the box: they are training a dog to sniff out the pellets that these rare owls cough up and fall to the forest floor under their roosts and nests.

Long-eared owl pellets and rodent bones obtained from dissected pellets (1 bar = 1 cm).
(Credit: BastienM / Public domain.)

An owl pellet, also known by falconers as a casting, is similar to a hairball coughed up by a cat, except an owl pellet contains the undigestible remains of the owl’s most recent meal, including insect exoskeletons, bones, fur, feathers, bills, claws and teeth. Owl pellets are popular items to dissect in science classes and are important to ornithologists for tracking seasonal variations in an owl’s eating habits as well as locating roosts and nest sites. Pellets are not easy to spot in the leaf litter and undergrowth, but a dog can sniff them out easily. By training a dog — a border collie-springer spaniel cross named Zorro in this case — to locate pellets produced only by the Tasmanian masked owl, the Difficult Birds Research Group plans to use them as a method to survey and to study these elusive nocturnal birds.

“Masked owls are very hard to find using ordinary survey techniques, and in remote, rugged Tasmanian forests, trudging around at night looking for owls is both unsafe and inefficient, so we had to get creative and find a new solution,” said conservation biologist, Dejan Stojanovic, who specializes in conservation and management of threatened species and their habitat, and who leads this project. It was his PhD research that led to the discovery that introduced sugar gliders are voracious predators on the critically endangered swift parrot (ref).

Zorro, a border collie-springer spaniel cross, will go to dog school to learn how to detect the pellets coughed up by the endangered Tasmanian masked owl.
(Credit: Dejan Stojanovic / Difficult Birds Research Group)

“By training Zorro to find owl pellets, we will dramatically improve the efficiency and accuracy of owl surveys, which will allow us undertake the first detailed research on what Tasmanian owls need to survive,” Dr. Stojanovic said in email.

So-called “detection dogs” are being used with increasing frequency in conservation programs like this one, because their sensitive noses detect specific targets more quickly and efficiently than people can. But properly training an owl pellet-sniffing dog costs money: to pay for Zorro’s schooling, human handlers and transportation to field sites, the Difficult Birds Research Group recently launched an ambitious new crowdfunding project to raise $60,000 by Sunday 16 September. You are encouraged to donate to this worthy effort.

This is the fourth such fund-raising campaign launched by the Difficult Birds Research Group, so they are no strangers to receiving public support to fund their conservation efforts. Their previous fund-raising efforts focused on helping conserve the critically endangered swift parrot as well as the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot, which is also threatened by deforestation in Tasmania. Additionally, the Difficult Birds Research Group were finalists in this year’s Australian Museum Eureka Prize awards in recognition of their innovative and novel approaches to researching and conserving endangered Tasmanian birds.

So do Harry Potter proud: Won’t you help save these endangered birds by donating a few galleons towards training Zorro to be Australia’s newest “bird hero”?

“We urgently need a new way to find masked owls, and with his amazing sense of smell, this crowdfund will help us train Zorro to be a hero for masked owl science!”

Is this the face of Australia’s newest “bird hero”? Zorro, a border collie-springer spaniel cross, will go to dog school to learn how to detect the pellets coughed up by the endangered Tasmanian masked owl.
(Credit: Dejan Stojanovic / Difficult Birds Research Group)

Originally published at Forbes on 10 September 2018.