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Cheaper Way To Find Spotted Owls: Dogs?

Northern spotted owls are small, but noisy. They defend their nests with a four-note hoot.

Biologists use that hoot to track where the endangered birds live. But there’s a problem. The owls are getting quieter. And that makes the already expensive process of finding them even more costly.

Amelia Templeton visited researchers from the University of Washington who say they have found a better, cheaper way of tracking owls.

It’s about 4 a.m. in northern California’s Trinity National Forest. It’s just started snowing. Three biologists stand at the edge of a dirt road. They know there used to be a spotted owl nest somewhere around here.

They press a button on a little black box they call the “hootenator.”

Amelia Templeton / OPB
In the Trinity National Forest in northern California, spotted owls have become quieter because of competition from barred owls. That makes the spotted owls harder and more expensive to track.

Recorded owl calls echo across the forest for fifteen minutes. Nothing happens. The researchers start to pack up. And then a real spotted owl lands in a tree right above them.

Jennifer Hartman: “What we’re doing is watching to see if he flies.”

That’s Jennifer Hartman. She’s been studying owls in this forest for five years.

Jennifer Hartman: “And even though it’s barely light enough to see we can kind of watch which way he goes. And that might have been the way he few in from.”

Hartman used to be a full time hooter. She’d sprint through the dark, calling back and forth with an owl until she located its nest. But today, she’s brought in a ringer to help with the search. His name is Max. And he’s an Australian Sheppard.

Amelia Templeton / OPB
Researchers hope using trained dogs to track northern spotted owls will be cheaper than current methods.

Elizabeth Seely works with detection dogs like Max. As soon as it gets light, she follows him down a steep ravine.  

Elizabeth Seely: “Right now Max is pretty much being a researcher and surveying. Jen’s trained him really well so Max will go over to big trees and kind of search around the base of a big tree to see if he can find a pellet.”

That’s right. The dog is looking for owl pellets. They’re balls of rodent fur and bones that the birds can’t digest so they vomit them up. The dogs can also sniff out owl poop, but the pellets are easier.

Samuel Wasser: “That’s a nice big scent that we were able to train the dogs to find.”

That’s Dr. Samuel Wasser. He’s overseeing this study. Wasser’s specialty is monitoring endangered species by analyzing their poop. 

He says using dogs to locate scat or pellets is a more effective way of tracking rare species than other methods. But Wasser says this technique only works if you can keep the dogs motivated.

So his team choses dogs who love to play with balls. Like, really love to play with balls.

Samuel Wasser: “You pair the detection of the scent of the particular species you want with the reward of getting the ball, and then you take the ball back and you say, you want the ball again? Find another sample.”

Wasser says the detection dogs can even track two different species at the same time. And that’s why he’s training them to search for owl pellets.

Researcher Jennifer Hartman searches for northern spotted owls with her trained owl pellet searcher, Max.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

Turns out the spotted owl is in the middle of a turf war — with another owl.

Lyle Lewis is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in California. He says these days aggressive barred owls are showing up in the Trinity National Forest. And hooting can get a spotted owl into trouble. 

Lyle Lewis: “In some cases barred owls may actually run them off. And even though its rare, there have been documented mortalities of spotted owls being killed by barred owls”

So the spotted owl has a new problem.  If it hoots, it might get whacked by a bigger owl. If it stays quiet, it might not be counted by biologists and could lose its real estate to logging.

That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has a budget problem. Lyle Lewis says now that spotted owls are quieter, it takes much more surveying to find the same birds.

Lyle Lewis: “It’s more expensive to get the required amount of surveys to determine whether the owls are there or not.”

And we’re talking about a lot of money.

The state of Oregon alone spends about a million dollars a year tracking about 100 spotted owls that nest in state forests.

That’s about $10,000 per owl every year. And quieter owls could double that cost.

Lewis says the detection dogs need to go through more tests. But he thinks they make surveying much quicker, and bring down the cost. 

Back in northern California, Max scrambles up a forested hillside and leads the team to a big Doug Fir. He finds a pellet buried in the snow.

Jennifer Hartman: “I saw a skull, and he’s sniffing down below.”

They swipe the pellet for DNA. Wasser’s lab will use that to confirm that it was coughed up by a northern spotted owl. As a reward for his success, Max gets to play with his favorite red ball.

When he’s done searching this forest for spotted owls, Max is heading to Canada. His next job: sniffing out grizzly bear poop.