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Meet the Owl that Fishes with Feces

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Back in the early 2000s, ornithologist Doug Levey was teaching a course at the University of Florida when he had a weird idea about poop. 

He and some of his students were on a field trip observing burrowing owls—a tiny, long-legged species that makes its home in underground burrows. If you’ve seen photos of burrowing owls, you know they’re pretty cute. If you’ve seen them in the wild, you know they’re also pretty weird. Unlike most of their cousins, burrowing owls are active during the daytime, and spend most of their day standing around the entrances of their burrows doing what seems to be a whole lot of nothing. 

All of this standing around is done amid piles of dung, which the owls collect and arrange around their homes like bizarre lawn decorations. Cow dung. Horse dung. Dung from dogs, cats, antelope—you name it. If an animal shares territory with burrowing owls and poops, chances are the owls will take it home; they don’t seem to be picky about whose feces they’re collecting. But what do they do with all of it?

One of Levey’s students pointed out that there were lots of dung beetle parts scattered throughout the owls’ pellets, the masses of undigested food that some birds regurgitate. Levey quickly put two and two together. If you want to catch a dung beetle, he figured, you’d leave some dung out. Maybe the owls were using the poo piles as bait to lure in their prey. 

To test the idea, Levey and his beetle-spotting student Scot Duncan cleared all the burrows of two different owl populations of their dung, pellets, and beetle pieces. Then they went back and scattered cow dung around half of them and left the other half alone. A few days later, they collected the regurgitated pellets and prey remains from all the burrows and kept them for analysis. Then they repeated the experiment, this time switching the burrows that got fresh dung and those that didn’t get any. 

They found that the owls who had dung at their burrows ate much better than their dung-less neighbors; their pellets suggested that they consumed ten times as many beetles and six times as many different beetle species. 

While it might look like the owls are standing around doing nothing, they’re really fishing for beetles with some unconventional bait. 

It’s a fascinating bit of tool use, but no one can tell if the owls are consciously collecting the dung as bait, acting on instinct, or even bringing the dung home for another reason (like masking the odor of their eggs or chicks) and simply enjoying the beetle-luring effect as a bonus. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Howl at Sirens?
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A dog's behavior can often prove confusing to their human colleagues. We know they like to eat their own poop, but puzzle at their motivations. We're surprised when dogs give a ladybug the same greeting as a home intruder.

Topping the list of eccentric canine behavior: Why do dogs howl at sirens? Is there some genetic predisposition to responding to a high-pitched alarm from passing ambulances or police vehicles?

As it turns out, the reason dogs howl at sirens is because of their ancestry—namely, the wolf. When members of a pack are fractured and spread out, their companions will howl to provide a way of locating them. Think of it as nature’s GPS: By howling, dogs are able to communicate their respective locations to one another, even across long distances.

Since dogs really don’t know what a cop car is supposed to sound like, they’ll often interpret a siren as an animal’s howl. It’s also possible that dogs consider sirens to be a sign that something is abnormal in their environment, and that they want you, the pack leader, to be aware of it.

Contrary to belief, a dog is rarely howling because the noise hurts their delicate ears. If that were the case, some experts say, then they would display other behaviors, like running and hiding.

The more a dog hears and responds to a siren, the more they might be compelled to continue the behavior. That’s because dogs who howl and then notice the sound drifting away might begin to associate their vocalizing with the disappearance of the noise. In the future, they’ll probably recall that they “drove” the interloper away with their warbling and repeat the process.

While howling is usually harmless, sometimes it can be a sign that your pet is feeling separation anxiety from an owner or that they’re feeling unwell. If howling persists even without a screaming siren within earshot, you might consider taking them in for a check-up.

If you’ve wondered why dogs howl at sirens, now you know. It’s simply a way of signaling their location and not because it pains them. Owners, on the other hand, might feel differently.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
5 Ways to Keep Your Dog Calm on the Fourth of July

The Fourth of July can be rough for dogs. Fireworks displays light up their senses with unfamiliar noises, flashes, and smells, and parties flood their homes with strange guests who may invade the rooms they usually have as private retreats. And when distressed dogs escape, howl, or thrash around the house, Independence Day can quickly become a nightmare for their owners, too. To minimize Fido's stress this holiday, we spoke to some dog experts to discover the best ways to keep your canine calm on the Fourth of July.

1. EXERCISE

Anthony Newman, the dog whisperer who runs New York City's Calm Energy Dog Training, says that exercise is a great way to help your dog let off some nervous energy. “Whenever Fido is going to be neglected for an extended period of time, or around any stressful stimuli, it always helps to tire him out just before—and even during the night if you can,” Newman says. “As the saying goes, a tired dog is a good dog! He’ll be calmer, happier, and more peaceful.”

2. STAY INDOORS

Dr. Stephanie Liff, head veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care, says the best place to keep your pet during a fireworks show is inside and away from the windows. “If the pet is very scared, an escape-proof crate or a sound-insulated room, such as an internal bathroom, may help the pet to feel more secure,” Liff tells us. “If you cannot keep your pet inside, make sure that the pet is prevented from escape (monitor all exits and tell guests to monitor your pet).”

3. SOCIALIZE

While your dog may feel more secure in a room away from all the noise, Newman points out that keeping your dog isolated in another room for too long can be stressful for your pet. “Release his curiosity and let him in on the fun, to run around and play with both two-legged as well as four-legged guests,” Newman says. “Then back to his obedient room, bed, car, crate, or spot. Rinse and repeat as needed throughout the night."

4. TAKE CONTROL

According to Newman, the best way to keep your dog calm during the chaos of July 4th is to stay in charge. “If your dog winces, shivers, and runs away at loud noises, the last thing he wants is to feel like nobody else is looking out for him,” Newman says. Don’t let your dog run rampant around the house or follow him around trying to soothe him. Instead, Newman says it's important to “take control by attaching a super-light leash that you can grab and lead him whenever you need.”

5. MEDICATE

In extreme cases of nervousness, Liff says that you should talk to your vet about medication to sedate your dog.

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