“Zorro” brought in to help save masked owls

7 September 2018

Scientists from the Australian National University's (ANU) Difficult Bird Research Group hope a specially trained dog named Zorro can save one of Australia's most elusive bird species.

Masked owls are endangered in Tasmania. They're also nocturnal and their preferred forest habitat is extremely difficult to access. As a result, very little is known about what they need to survive.

So the team from ANU is launching an ambitious new 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.

"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," Dr Dejan Stojanovic who's leading the campaign said.

"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."

Currently, knowledge of the masked owl's habitat needs is pieced together from scraps of information, making management of the species difficult.

"Deforestation is presenting a major threat to the birds, so there's an urgent need to update management practices with reliable information." PhD student Adam Cisterne 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 Difficult Bird Research Group were finalists in this year's Australian Museum Eureka Prize awards for their innovative approach to researching endangered Tasmanian birds.

This is the fourth campaign launched by the group, and builds on previous work to protect the critically endangered swift parrot and orange-bellied parrot, which are also threatened by loss of habitat in Tasmania.

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

If you'd like to get involved, further details are available on the crowdfunding webpage.