This Very Good Dog Could Save Two Threatened Birds From Extinction

Bird researcher Dr Dejan Stojanovic with Zorro the dog, whose mission, should he choose to accept it, is to save one subspecies of bird, which will then save another, even more endangered species). Difficult Birds Research Group, ANU

One dog may carry the survival of both the swift parrot and the Tasmanian subspecies of masked owl on his shoulders. A team of scientists, struggling to find the owls in order to study and protect them, hope a canine nose can assist them, and have crowd-sourced the money to do it. The owls may in turn save their fellow birds by reducing predator numbers.

Tasmanian masked owls are the largest Tyto novaehollandiae subspecies. These magnificent birds weigh up to 1.3 kilograms (2.9 pounds), with wingspans of 1.3 meters (4.3 feet). They are listed as vulnerable, but no one really knows how endangered they are or what's the greatest threat to their numbers.

Nocturnal species are seldom easy to study, and masked owls live in such inaccessible forests, that researchers have had little luck in finding them. The Australian National University team studying them is officially known as the Difficult Bird Research Group because the owls, like the other birds the team works on, don't make things easy for researchers. Dr Dejan Stojanovic told IFLScience that from 850 recent attempts to find the owls in likely Tasmanian habitat using recordings of their call, only 30 were identified. It is unclear if the owls are actually this rare or if they are reticent in responding to calls.

Instead, Stojanovic hopes to track the owls through the pellets of bone and fur they vomit up. The pellets are predictably smelly, to the point a dog should be able to find them with ease. Masters student Nicole Gill identified the ideal dog for the task as one with the brains of a border collie and the nose of a springer spaniel.

Gill gave an aptitude test to nine puppies from a crossbreed litter and chose one, appropriately named Zorro, as the most suitable. Stojanovic told IFLScience that Zorro has been pre-approved for ANU enrollment, not for his amazing sense of smell but because he is “highly motivated by rewards”, including relishing praise and playing structured games.

To train Zorro, Gill is looking to a team that have previously taught dogs to find endangered species, such as koalas, from their droppings. This training program doesn't come cheap, however. Combined with the cost of keeping Zorro and Gill in the field, the difficult birds team needed Aus$60,000 (US$44,000) to ensure Zorro graduates debt-free.

A Tasmanian masked owl at Port Arthur JJ Harrison CC by 3.0
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