For the Birds Radio Program: The Fab Five and Burrowing Owls

Original Air Date: Sept. 3, 2004 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Dec. 27, 2004

Burrowing Owls clearly do not watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The little owls’ use of dung around their nest attracts beetles that the owls eat.

Duration: 4′14″


Burrowing Owls and the Fab Five

In Gainesville, Florida, researchers have made a discovery about Burrowing Owls that proves once and for all that these little predators are not watching the Fab Five on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Apparently Burrowing Owls intentionally collect dung produced by local mammals, including horses, cows, cats, dogs and antelope. They arrange these scraps of feces in and around their burrows. (Recording ewww)Thom Felicia, the interior decorator on Queer Eye, might find this absolutely horrible, but the birds are not doing it because it accentuates a particular color scheme or adds texture to the living space. They’re doing it to bait one of their favorite foods, dung beetles. (Recording–Wow!) Of course Ted Allen, the program’s food connoisseur, would not approve of that, either. (Save it for poker night)

Burrowing Owls are notorious collectors of junk, including aluminum cans, scraps of carpet and even road-killed toads. Douglas Levey, who led the team of researchers studying the owls, speculates that perhaps dung started out as just another collectable, and the habit was reinforced by the fact that it also attracts food. To test whether the dung really makes a difference in the owls’ diets, the researchers observed a group of Burrowing Owls, first removing all the dung from all of their burrows. Then they placed fresh feces in front of some burrows and left the others bare. After four days, the team examined the debris in and around the burrows for fragments of beetle carcasses. They found that owls with dung outside the burrows ate ten times more dung than those without dung. The research was reported this week in Nature.

Levey believes that the owls’ use of dung represents a form of tool use, since the birds specifically gather and arrange it for a specific goal. But the fact that they use feces as bait does not necessarily mean they are consciously plotting to catch beetles. “A lot of people have an image of owls as wise, but I do not think the owls are aware of what they are doing,” he says. Rather, he suspects that the behavior may have arisen for some other reason, such as to disguise the smell of the owls’ eggs or chicks, or to create a visual display to entice females. “I don’t think dung beetles are the whole story,” he says.

Bernd Heinrich, a researcher at the University of Vermont who has written such classics as Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven, believes that the behavior probably evolved to benefit the owls without them knowing why. He said, “The acts of putting down the dung and getting the beetles are probably too far apart in time for the owls to reason it out.”

I can’t help but think that as the owls mature, the instinct to bring various items to the nest is refined as they learn that the dung attracts beetles. But whether or not they have a clue whether collecting the dung helps their dining fare, it’s clear that the Fab Five would not approve. (Recording LaLaLa)

That’s the fab five, and I’m Laura Erickson, speaking For the Birds.