Surveying for nocturnal, ground nesting seabirds can often be fraught with difficulties. In today’s blog Siân Denney, Science Communications Volunteer, explains a new RSPB paper which has trialled a novel method of detecting seabird burrows through the use of scent dogs.

Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years and trained to perform a vast array of tasks. Scent dogs are increasingly used for conservation purposes, such as to locate rare native species, as well as to detect invasive non-native species that may threaten them. There is a huge potential to utilise scent dogs to monitor seabirds that nest out of sight in holes and burrows, and this novel study assessed the performance of such dogs in both experimental and field settings.

Monitoring importance

Many seabird species are undergoing major declines in UK, so efforts are required to monitor trends and restore populations. The UK holds internationally important colonies of European storm petrels and Manx shearwaters, but existing survey methods for these two species are very labour-intensive and problematical, due to these species’ nocturnal and hole-nesting behaviours. This study examined the ability of scent dogs to detect European storm petrels and Manx shearwater nesting sites.

Left - Storm petrel adult - © RSPB (rspb-images.com); Right - Manx shearwater © A J Bellamy (rspb-images.com)

Detection methods

The two dogs were chosen for their high drive to maximise suitability for scent work. The first, “Islay” (a Golden Retriever) was trained to detect storm petrels, using established methods to mark and reward the detection of targets containing storm petrels’ scent. Once Islay could detect and indicate the location of the storm petrel scented targets, her performance was assessed over a series of trials, by concealing a scented target at random in one of 20 cavities in a wall that simulated the nesting sites of the species. Further trials measured her ability to discriminate between the scent of storm petrels and shearwaters.

Islay during her training (c) Mark Bolton

The second dog, “Dewi” (a Border Collie), a working sheepdog that assists with livestock management on Ramsey Island, was used to detect breeding shearwaters. The dog had learnt to discriminate between occupied and unoccupied burrows, and to lie down to indicate burrows occupied by shearwaters.

Study findings and discussion

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 European 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.

Dewi finds a burrow (c) Greg Morgan

In a survey context, scent dogs may have great value in delimiting the approximate area of occurrence of the burrow nesting seabirds, which is often a source of considerable uncertainty in the estimation of population size. Additionally, dogs can cover more habitat in a smaller amount of time compared with other methods, but it must be acknowledged that whilst canine scent detection can be extremely accurate, there may also be some false positives and negatives. It must also be stressed that professionals should be involved in the selection, training and testing of scent dogs to ensure the best outcomes, and that animal welfare considerations should also be prioritised.

The aim of this study was to highlight the potential of scent dogs for future seabird monitoring and to encourage further research into the efficacy and efficiency of scent dogs compared with existing methods. As seabird populations remain at risk from further declines, these methods may assist in ongoing efforts to support the conservation of these species.

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