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 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.