Figuring out just how many birds and bats are killed by the spinning blades of wind turbines has always been an inexact science. The tiny carcasses are easily hidden by by grass and shrubs, and many are spirited away by scavengers before researchers arrive. Help, however, could be just a wagging tail away: In Portugal, researchers have shown that specially-trained “carcass dogs” can track down corpses easily missed by human searchers.

Conservation biologists are no strangers to canine-assisted research. Scientists have used dogs to detect and track everything from right whales to bears, João Paula of the Portugese consulting firm Bio3 and colleagues report in the Journal for Nature Conservation. One 2006 study even suggested dogs could help assess bat fatalities at wind farms.

To test that idea, and see how well dogs might do with dead birds, the team worked with the Special Operations Group of the Portuguese Public Security Police (PSP) to train a two-year-old female German shepherd to detect dead birds and bats. “To ensure the dog was trained to detect several avian carcass scents, rather than just a single species, the training used a variable number of 17 different bird and bat species, collected in field surveys,” the researchers note.

Then, the researchers set up dog vs. human field trials at a Portuguese wind farm, scattering 30 carcasses in a variety of habitats. It was no contest. The dog detected 96% of the carcasses (missing just one during the trials). But the best humans could do was 20%. Although the dog did have trouble crashing through some thorn bushes is search of a carcass, even thick vegetation didn’t compromise “detection accuracy” – and neither did weather conditions or the carcass’s state of decay. The results “demonstrate the usefulness of dogs in field surveys to improve birdstrike mortality estimates at wind farms and other anthropogenic structures that cause bird fatalities worldwide,” the researchers conclude.

One downside, they concede, is that using a trained dog and its handler could be more expensive than using human searchers to conduct monitoring studies. But the improved accuracy could be worth they cost, they note. And they suggest the time might be right for nations with booming wind industries to establish a “certification process for dogs searching for bird corpses associated with vertical collision hazards.”  But “since it is difficult to obtain fresh corpses from wild species” for dog training, the use of raised birds “is encouraged.” David Malakoff | March 14, 2011

Source: Paula, J., Leal, M., Silva, M., Mascarenhas, R., Costa, H., & Mascarenhas, M. (2011). Dogs as a tool to improve bird-strike mortality estimates at wind farms. Journal for Nature Conservation DOI: 10.1016/j.jnc.2011.01.002

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