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Teaching old dogs new tricks – sniffer dogs helping detect seabirds

Teaching old dogs new tricks – sniffer dogs helping detect seabirds
  • An innovative study, led by the RSPB, has been testing the ability of dogs to track seabirds that nest in burrows
  • The researchers having been testing their dogs’ ability to detect Manx shearwater and European storm petrels, and whether dogs can differentiate between these two seabird species
  • Seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of birds and it is hoped this study will aid their monitoring and conservation

In the paper published recently in the Journal Seabird, the RSPB team documented the training, testing and performance of a one-year old golden retriever to detect the scent of European storm petrels, and whether the dog could differentiate between those and Manx shearwaters; and a 12-year old border collie’s ability to detect Manx shearwaters breeding in natural burrows and artificial nest boxes.

Scent dogs have regularly been used for conservation for decades, including detecting elusive and endangered animals. They are particularly effective at detecting birds that breed in cavities and are only active above ground nocturnally (such as kiwis and kakapos).

Many seabirds show these same characteristics and some, including the storm petrels, are well-known for their strong odour. However, using scent dogs to detect seabirds has not been common practice in UK despite difficulties in locating, and surveying, their burrows.

The storm petrel is the UK’s smallest seabird, weighing just 25 – 30 grams – the same as three £1 coins. However these seabirds spend most of their time at sea, and only coming to land to breed. Manx shearwaters are similarly ocean-loving, breeding on land in the UK before migrating to the South American coast for winter.

Surveying for these two species is fraught with difficulties due to their nocturnal and burrow-nesting behaviours. Both are threatened in the UK.

Dog A, a golden retriever called Islay, was trained to locate and indicate storm petrel feathers using standard methods. Once Islay was able to correctly detect and indicate the target, the handlers measured her accuracy in identifying storm petrel locations using randomly placed scented pads, and they measured her ability to differentiate storm petrel scent from Manx shearwater.

Dog B, a Border Collie called Dewi, is a working sheepdog that assists with livestock management on Ramsey Island and used to detect Manx shearwater burrows. Dewi had learnt to discriminate between occupied and unoccupied burrows and lay down to indicate occupied burrows.

The study found that, with sufficient training and reward, Islay could pinpoint the precise location of the concealed storm petrel target and to differentiate between storm petrel and Manx shearwater scents with 100% reliability. However, care was needed to ensure no cross-contamination of scents occurred. Similarly Dewi has a high success rate in finding shearwater nest burrows, although he was less successful at locating deep burrows, presumably because there was less shearwater scent at the burrow entrance.

The findings are extremely promising in highlighting the value of scent dogs to determine the presence of particular seabird species at breeding sites where their presence is unknown.

RSPB Principal Conservation Scientist and lead author of the paper, Mark Bolton said: “This work highlights the remarkable scent detection capabilities of dogs and their largely untapped potential to assist seabird monitoring in UK. The recent use of specially-trained scent dogs to locate the nest burrows of storm petrels at a newly-discovered colony on the Isle of May last autumn is further evidence of the real-world potential of scent dogs for seabird monitoring and I hope that this study will encourage more conservation practitioners to utilise scent dogs in their work.”


Main image: Islay the golden retriever. Credit: Mark Bolton