Zorro is a pup with a dream job — for dogs.
The canine is being trained to sniff out large, stinky balls of bone and fur that owls regurgitate as part of human quest to learn more about one of Australia’s largest and most elusive birds, the Tasmanian masked owl.
Just how many of the endangered owls are left is a mystery — it is estimated that fewer than 1,000 masked owls are living in Tasmanian forests, but a field survey this year found just 30 birds.
Zorro the border collie pup is training to sniff out evidence of Tasmanian masked owls. (ABC News: Felicity Ogilvie)
The scientists hope Zorro will give them a true sense of population numbers.
Zorro is a 19-week-old border collie cross springer spaniel, and is already able to find owl pellets on training walks in the forest.
The pellets stink because they contain the regurgitated remains of prey that the owls eat, such as possums, rabbits and rats.
The dog’s trainer Nicole Gill says the pellets have an earthy smell and “lots of fur and bones and bits of tiny animals in them”.
The pellets may sound disgusting, but Zorro likes the smell so much that Ms Gill trainer has to stop the pup from trying to eat them.
One scientists who is looking forward to examining the pellets Zorro finds is Australian National University PhD student Adam Cisterne.
He says the pellets will show him what the owl has been eating, while DNA testing will reveal gender and possibly even identity individual owls so scientists can figure out how many are living in the wild.
Using a dog is a much easier way to find the nocturnal birds than Mr Cisterne’s current method.
Adam Cisterne was trying to find masked owls by playing a recording of their calls. (ABC News: Felicity Ogilvie)
He’s just spent winter walking around the southern forests of Tasmania in the dark playing a recording of a masked owl in the hope that a bird will call back to him.
“It’s pretty frustrating, out of 850 surveys I’ve only detected owls 30 times,” he says.
He says it is so hard to find the owls because he needs to be in the right place at the right time. Even if an owl is in the forest, it doesn’t necessarily respond to him.
But the dog will be able to sniff out the pellets the owls leave behind and do the work in the daytime.
Dog trainer Nicole Gill (L) and conservation biologist Dejan Stojanovic with Zorro. (ABC News: Felicity Ogilvie)
Part of Zorro’s training will take place in Queensland at the University of the Sunshine Coast; where in a world first, experts trained a detector dog to find koala poo in the forest.
In Queensland, Zorro will be forced to search out and correctly choose owl pellets from a group of petri dishes containing various objects on a football field to prove he can come back to Tasmania and find the masked owl.
Tasmanian masked owls are listed as endangered because of habitat loss. (Supplied: David Watts)
Conservation biologist Dejan Stojanovic, a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University, says until researchers decided to train the dog, scientists had no reliable way to find the masked owl.
“The reality is that unless we just by dumb luck find an owl, there’s no systematic way to really be sure that we’re adequately surveying the forests for masked owls,” he says.
“So what we’re worried about is that we may be losing masked owl habitat before we even know how to identify what that habitat is.”
The State Government business responsible for logging public forest says masked owl nests are always excluded from logging.
Sustainable Timber Tasmania says it is “committed to protection of threatened species and welcomes research efforts to improve understanding of ecology and habitat requirements for masked owls in Tasmanian forests”.