Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The owl that gathers manure

Oh dear. Having only recently pronounced the death of animal behaviour, I keep coming across irresistable papers.

“Gather ye cowpats while ye may,” it says in Fungus the Bogeyman. American burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia [isn't that a nice name?]), it turns out, take this advice to heart, collecting manure and scattering it about their burrows.

One hypothesis for this unsavoury behaviour is that the dung disguises the smell of their burrows from predators, but Matthew Smith and Courtney Conway found that manure-strewn burrows were just as likely to suffer predation as clean and tidy ones. Instead, their results suggest, the manure attracts insects and other invertebrates, which the owls eat.

Are there any other animals (besides humans) that lure prey with bait like this? I suspect there are, but none are springing to my mind.

More flimsily, Smith and Conway suggest that the manure also acts as an ‘occupied’ sign, showing other owls that a burrow is taken. What’s wrong with flowers? This is a bird with self-esteem issues. Or maybe it’s some kind of dirty protest. If only we knew what they’re demanding.

1 comment:

jbruno said...

Ah, the wonders of poop. I visited the National Zoo yesterday and they had a scale model of a heating system reliant on cow dung that is being promoted for use in places like India. I want to get some pics of it up soon.

Thanks again for volunteering to host, John. I'll be a regular visitor here.