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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Burrowing Owls

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on an unusual tool that some owls use to trap their dung beetle dinner.


CURWOOD: Just ahead: Flying the friendly skies for the environment. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: In the grasslands and deserts of some southwestern states, you might come across a small scavenging owl. It’s been described by some as a short fat bird on stilts – whose common name is the Burrowing Owl. That’s because it makes its home not in the trees, but in the ground.

A pair of Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) (Photo: Stephen Pitt)

Before breeding season, it scopes out abandoned badger holes as nesting sites. The owl is notorious for hoarding all manner of junk in these burrows, from aluminum cans to animal roadkill. It also lines the outside of its den with fresh droppings from local horses and cows – not exactly the ideal air freshener. But biologists at the University of Florida have discovered the owls might actually be using these droppings as bait for one of their favorite snacks: the dung beetle.

To test this theory, researchers removed the animal waste from a group of owl dens. They then replaced some of the dens with fresh droppings, and left the others empty. After four days, they measured the amount of beetle carcasses around the dens, and found the owls with droppings outside their burrows ate ten times more than those without. Scientists suggest that these owls evolved to use animal droppings as a trapping tool, a strategy they’ve dubbed “bait and wait.”

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Medeski Martin and Wood “New Planet” END OF THE WORLD PARTY (JUST IN CASE) (Blue Note – 2004)]



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