Weird Nature: An Owl That Uses Dung Tools

Burrowing owls can be quite common in intact, healthy grasslands like the Colombian Llanos. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Burrowing owls can be quite common in intact, healthy grasslands like the Colombian Llanos. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Burrowing owls are always a crowd pleaser. Unlike many owl species, they can often be viewed in daylight. They nest underground, using abandoned prairie dog or ground squirrel holes.

And, let’s admit it, they’re incredibly cute.

But here may be the burrowing owl’s most astounding habit: they use a tool. Not just any tool, either: the owls utilize animal dung to make hunting easier.

Yeah, that’s right: animal dung. I’ll refrain from using any scatological slang in this post, but please feel free.

Research published in the journal Nature by zoologist Douglas Levey and other authors found that burrowing owls collected animal dung and arranged it around their burrows. The owls sat and waited for dung beetles to approach the animal feces, and then snatched up easy meals.

Levey calls this “fishing,” the equivalent of setting out a bait and waiting for the fish to bite. He has noted that the prevailing wisdom used to be that owls were just sitting around at the edge of their burrow doing nothing all day. It turns out they were letting the dung do the hard work, while they reaped the bounty.

The research also demonstrated that this tool use greatly increased owl success in catching dung beetles.

Burrowing owls use dung to attract beetles to their burrows. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Burrowing owls use dung to attract beetles to their burrows. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Burrowing owls are grassland birds, and they’ve faced a lot of challenges due to the loss of habitat and reduction of prairie dog colonies. In areas with large, intact grasslands they can exist in surprising abundance.

On a trip to the extensive grasslands of the Colombian Llanos, we’d see dozens in an hour’s horse ride.  Some ranchers admitted to catching (and releasing) them for fun when they were kids, an activity that may have been upsetting to the owls but helped instill a conservation ethic in the ranchers (please don’t try this, though).

They’re fascinating birds, worth searching out on prairies, deserts and other open areas. Keep an eye out for their burrows, and maybe you’ll be rewarded with a sighting of one of the most unusual tool users in the animal kingdom.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Burrowing owls are incredibly cute. They're also effective tool users. Photo: Flickr user travelwayoflife under a Creative Commons license.

Burrowing owls are incredibly cute. They’re also effective tool users. Photo: Flickr user travelwayoflife under a Creative Commons license.

Posted In: Weird Nature

Matt Miller is a senior science writer for the Conservancy. He writes features and blogs about the conservation research being conducted by the Conservancy’s 550 scientists. Matt previously worked for nearly 11 years as director of communications for the Conservancy’s Idaho program. He has served on the national board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and has published widely on conservation, nature and outdoor sports. He has held two Coda fellowships, assisting conservation programs in Colombia and Micronesia. An avid naturalist and outdoorsman, Matt has traveled the world in search of wildlife and stories.

Comments: Weird Nature: An Owl That Uses Dung Tools

  •  Comment from Ken Miracle

    Great article … never knew these guys were fishermen … but no catch and release for them just for the ranch kids :-}

  •  Comment from Doug Levey

    The fascinating thing about these guys is that they collect lots of stuff from their environment to “decorate” their burrows: plastic, foil, chunks of turf, and — my favorite — two-dimensional mummified toads from roadsides. Nobody knows why.

  •  Comment from Heidi Boucher

    I recently watch a program about how The Borrowing owls habit is being distroy, on this TV program they made man made borrowing tunnels with drainage tubes and plastic drumbs where at the top of the drum they could access the Borrowing Owls and of course the dug hole in ground with only the small hole showing is that these beautiful creatures could survice. I am wondering in you know exectly how these man made borrows are made. I do think this may help us in our desparate need for shelters for our homeless feral cat population in NH and Mass. Please e-mail me with any info you may have Thsnk You Heidi Boucher

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