Scientists want to train this puppy to save endangered owls
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Scientists want to train this puppy to save endangered owls

To save one of Australia's most elusive birds, scientists need a hero.

Enter Zorro. He's young, charismatic and, like his namesake, never resists the call to adventure. He also happens to be a four-month-old puppy.

But in a last-ditch conservation effort, a crack team of Canberra researchers plan to harness Zorro's superior canine nose to help find and monitor Tasmania's masked owl.

While the endangered bird plays a vital role as the state's largest nocturnal predator, very little is known about its life.

Zorro, the pup hoping to help scientists track the elusive masked owl in the forests of Tasmania.

Zorro, the pup hoping to help scientists track the elusive masked owl in the forests of Tasmania.Credit:Twitter

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The problem, according to the Australian National University's aptly-named Difficult Bird Research Group, is that masked owls are notoriously hard to monitor in the wild.

Not only is the terrain rugged, but researchers must venture out after dark, scaling ancient trees or straying far off road in some of the most remote corners of Tasmania.

"It's a logistical nightmare, it's just not safe," says Dr Dejan Stojanovic.

"We know almost nothing about these birds, we don't know their population here, we don't know their diet, their habitat."

As animals in the region come under increasing pressure from logging, scientists worry the owl could disappear before they find the answers.

"It's hard to say to the government don't do this while they're still under this cloak of uncertainty, and bad decisions can get made," Dr Stojanovic says.

Fortunately the birds do leave something behind for the more daring scientist to follow - their vomit.

Researcher Dr Dejan Stojanovic will help train puppy Zorro in masked owl detection.

Researcher Dr Dejan Stojanovic will help train puppy Zorro in masked owl detection.Credit:Difficult Birds Research Group, ANU

Zorro will be trained to detect the smelly pellets of regurgitated food owls spit up on the forest floor. Often compared to fur-balls, the pellets contain scraps of bone and other parts of prey the birds can't digest.

Finding them will not only help researchers narrow in on owl territory, but also reveal details of their diet and offer up potential material for genetic profiling and mapping of the mysterious population.

PhD student Adam Cisterne, a geneticist, has spent long nights this winter hoping to find masked owls by playing bird calls into the trees along Tasmania's roadsides with little success. As well as elusive, the birds are picky. They require large hollows in trees about the size of a wine barrel to nest - a feature of the forest fast disappearing as old-growth shrinks under deforestation.

Very little is known about the elusive masked owl, which is one of the largest in the world.

Very little is known about the elusive masked owl, which is one of the largest in the world.Credit:Ray Kennedy

"I've climbed thousands of trees here and I've never even come across one hollow big enough," Dr Stojanovic says.

After more than 800 surveys, Mr Cisterne found just 30 masked owls, and it is estimated less than 1000 now survive in the region.

Zorro, who was hand-selected by a dog-trainer and PhD student working on the project, is expected to have a much better chance of sniffing them out.

While the border collie cross springer spaniel is already being introduced to the pellets, the team hope to crowdfund enough money to send him to the University of the Sunshine Coast for special training in its elite Dog Detection Program.

Detection dogs are joining conservationists more and more in the field, sniffing out everything from rabbits and weeds to whale poo on the high seas.

"He's got the nose of a springer but the brain of a border-collie, and he's so cute it's too much," Dr Stojanovic gushes about his new research assistant.

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If the team raise enough funds for the four-month long study, Zorro will also get his own side-kick, though this second understudy dog is yet to be revealed.

"This will be the first detailed research that's been done on these owls," Dr Stojanovic says.

"Whenever we see top predators in trouble, whole ecosystems can go out of whack, so this bird really is vital."

The team, which take on the most difficult cases in bird conservation, have already raised more than $3000 in less than a day. They hope to raise $60,000 by September 16 to set Zorro loose on his new mission.

www.difficultbirds.com

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs