‘Zorro’ to the rescue
‘Zorro’ the puppy could be called the ‘masked owl avenger’. He is the secret weapon in the fight to save one of Tasmania’s rarest birds.
Zorro may be small and fluffy, but he has been hand-picked for a big mission: to head deep into Tasmania’s ancient forests to track down our notoriously rare and elusive masked owls.
Just shy of five months, Zorro – a border collie cross springer spaniel – is being specially trained to ‘sniff out’ the scent of these magnificent and endangered creatures.
It’s an innovative, out-of-the box idea, and the brainchild of scientist, Dr Dejan Stojanovic, who studies Tasmania’s rare birds.
“Once Zorro is trained it will be an absolute game-changer for owl research,” Dr Stojanovic says.
Zorro is very cute. But, he is also very clever which makes him the perfect choice for this groundbreaking mission.
“Zorro has a border collie brain, and a springer spaniel nose, which makes him the ideal combination,” Dr Stojanovic explains.
“Border collies are one of the smartest dogs and by nature they also want to please, while springer spaniels have a highly evolved sense of smell and are very athletic which makes them ideal for fieldwork.
“When the litter was born, we did an aptitude test on all the puppies and Zorro passed with flying colours. Most importantly he is highly motivated for his rewards, namely food treats and pats.”
Tasmania’s masked owls are amongst the largest of their species in the world, growing to the size of a big rooster.
However, these magnificent creatures are also endangered.
Latest estimates indicate just 1,000 remain, although Dr Stojanovic warns “this is really just a stab in the dark, as there is no reliability to that number at all.”
He leads a crack team of scientists – at the aptly named Difficult Bird Research Group at the Australian National University in Canberra – and is organising the first comprehensive survey of Tasmania’s masked owls. They want to lock in answers on numbers and habitats.
But there is one big problem – finding them.
Not only do masked owls make their homes in the towering trees of our old growth forests, which are extremely difficult to access, but they are also nocturnal.
“Masked owls are very hard to find using ordinary survey techniques,” Dr Stojanovic explains.
“Trudging around at night looking for owls in some of Tasmania’s most remote and rugged forests is both unsafe and inefficient.
“We needed to get creative and find a new solution.”
That’s where Zorro comes in.
He is being taught to sniff out owl pellets, the small indigestible bits of prey that resemble cat fur-balls, that the owls regurgitate onto the forest floor.
“By training Zorro to find owl pellets, we will dramatically improve the efficiency and accuracy of owl surveys, which will allow us to undertake the first detailed research on what Tasmanian owls need to survive,” Dr Stojanovic adds.
However, Zorro’s road to ‘masked owl avenger’ is not easy.
He has just begun an intensive yearlong training program that includes classes at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s elite Dog Detection Program. A successful crowd-funding campaign has already raised $60,000 to contribute towards this.
And, if all goes to plan, this time next year, Zorro will start his ‘day job’ and be deployed into our ancient forests in search of those elusive owls.
Meantime, while both Zorro and Dr Stojanovic may work for Canberra’s Australian National University, home is Mountain Creek, right on the edge of Tasmania’s South West Wilderness, and the very heart of masked owl territory.
“Even though this all might sound a little unusual, dogs have a super power sense of smell and a proven track record in sniffing out their targets.
“I have no doubt that Zorro could well become the hero of Tasmania’s magnificent masked owls.”
For further information please visit www.difficultbirds.com.
Image courtesy of the Difficult Bird Research Group, Australian National University.
14 October 2018, Edition 199