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.
Thanks to an abundance of generous prizes, a crowdfunder raised this in just nine days, and Zorro's training is about to begin.
Challenges remain, however. Stojanovic told IFLScience that Zorro will be taught what to smell for using pellets from captive masked owls. However, some wild pellets will need to be mixed in, lest Zorro only become attuned to pellets from owls fed on a diet of lab rats and rabbits.
Stojanovic is also pondering the difficulties of getting a bag full of owl pellets through airport security for the Queensland leg of Zorro's training.
If he proves up to the task, Zorro should help researchers find pellets, and it is hoped the concentration of these will lead them to the owls. The pellets alone may also reveal if the owls are being affected by feeding on prey poisoned with rodenticides.
Any information on such a poorly understood species could be a life-saver for the owls, particularly in showing whether logging is leaving them with insufficient nesting hollows.
Masked owls are a major sugar glider predator, and Stojanovic thinks the owls' decline may be a contributing factor to sugar gliders increasingly eating many eggs of endangered smaller birds, particularly the swift parrot. If so, saving the owl could also rescue the parrot, one of Australia's most endangered birds.