How Scientists Use Fake Poop to Help Transplant Owls Feel at Home

by Matthew Memrick
how-scientists-use-fake-poop-to-help-transplant-owls-feel-at-home

What do scientists get transplanted burrowing owls to feel at home after cities push them out? Fake poop, apparently.

Scientists use a combination of fake poop and play owl sounds as a housewarming gift of sorts to help owls adjust to new surroundings.

The Associated Press reported that a new study said these “gifts” help this breed adjust to a new home as cities expand.

Fake Poop For Owls Big In Southern California

There might be a California poop joke here, but the desperate birds feel the crunch as cities grow. Areas like Silicon Valley are where these animals get booted from their prime grassland homes.

Biologists have tried to move the owls to protected areas, but that won’t just cut it. You’ve got to make it so lovely that these birds will kick their feet up on the coffee table. They’ll close their eyes, sniff the fake poop-filled air, and know they’re home.

Wouldn’t you know it? The scientists got a pilot program to help create that home-like impression, and it worked.

“They like to be in a neighborhood, to live near other owls,” said Colleen Wisinski, a conservation biologist at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, which launched the experiment with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

So, the program played bird calls, and after the transplanted animals “relocated” to four Southern California locations, they stuck around.

By the way, what’s fake poop look like in real life? It’s just white paint squirted around from a syringe.

The journal Animal Conservation published the owl results on Thursday.

Burrowing Owls Love Company

These small, long-legged owls like company, and seeing the poop helps them feel comfortable, knowing others are nearby.

Knowing that there’s a parliament of owls around helps protect coyotes and hawks. When one owl screams or sounds an alarm, the others know it’s time to scoot.

So, with all the city development, federal law protects the birds from death, but their homes don’t get federal protection from humans. Contractors or others get them to scram before the construction.

San Jose State University ecologist Lynne Trulio calls this eviction “basically a death sentence.”

She wasn’t part of the study but has observed these birds for 30 years. The western burrowing owl population native to California has decreased by one-third in 57 years. California authorities call these owls a “species of special concern.” 

Past attempts to transplant these birds are a mixed bag. A 2017 experiment included tracking 47 owls with GPS devices. But 

successful transplants have occurred with breeding colonies. 

One primary site, Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve in southwestern San Diego County, had about 50 owl chicks in 2020. The scientists monitored those burrowing birds, but they were on their own for the most part. Results were not favorable.

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