‘Zorro’ sniffs out endangered owls

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Photo provided by the Difficult Bird Research Group, ANU
“ZORRO”, a specially trained dog will hopefully help save Tasmania’s endangered masked owls, according to ANU scientists from the Difficult Bird Research Group. 

Masked owls are nocturnal and their preferred forest habitat is extremely difficult to access, which is why the team from ANU is launching a crowdfunding project.

They’re raising money to train a puppy to detect the scent of masked owls in the Tasmanian forest. Zorro will be taught to sniff out owl pellets (regurgitated indigestible parts of prey, which look like cat fur-balls) on the forest floor.

Dr Dejan Stojanovic who’s leading the campaign said 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.

“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.

Currently, knowledge of the masked owl’s habitat needs is pieced together from scraps of information, making management of the species difficult, which is why PhD student Adam Cisterne said there’s an urgent need to update management practices with reliable information.

“Deforestation is presenting a major threat to the birds,” he said.

Detection dogs are helpful in conservation programs like this one, because their sensitive noses detect targets more quickly and efficiently than people can.

“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,” Dr Stojanovic said.

The team is hoping to raise $60,000 by Sunday, September 16. 

Further details are available on the crowdfunding webpage.

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