Animals have evolved an impressive array of behavioural traits to avoid depredation. Olfactory camouflage of conspicuous odours is a strategy to avoid depredation that has been implicated only in a few species of birds. Burrowing owls, Athene cunicularia, routinely collect dried manure from mammals and scatter it in their nest chamber, in the tunnel leading to their nest and at the entrance to their nesting burrow. This unusual behaviour was thought to reduce nest depredation by concealing the scent of adults and juveniles, but a recent study suggests that manure functions to attract arthropod prey. However, burrowing owls routinely scatter other materials in the same way that they scatter manure, and this fact seems to be at odds with both of these hypotheses. Thus, we examined the function of this behaviour by testing four alternative hypotheses. We found no support for the widely cited olfactory-camouflage hypothesis (manure did not lower the probability of depredation), or for the mate-attraction hypothesis (males collected manure after, not before, pair formation). Predictions of the burrow-occupied hypothesis (manure indicates occupancy to conspecifics and thereby reduces agonistic interactions) were supported, but results were not statistically significant. Our results also supported several predictions of the prey-attraction hypothesis. Pitfall traps at sampling sites with manure collected more arthropod biomass (of taxa common in the diet of burrowing owls) than pitfall traps at sampling sites without manure. Scattering behaviour of burrowing owls appears to function to attract arthropod prey, but may also signal occupancy of a burrow to conspecifics. ?? 2006 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.
Additional publication details
Use of mammal manure by nesting burrowing owls: a test of four functional hypotheses