These Dogs Are a Bird’s Best Friend

With their boundless enthusiasm and amazing powers of smell, canines are playing a growing role in global efforts to protect wildlife.
A dog with brown, white, and gray fur and wearing a harness stands on a boulder and looks at the camera, its tongue lolling out. Behind it, several wind turbines rise from a desert landscape against an orange sky, with mountains in the distance.
Indy is part of a team working to make wind farms safer for wildlife by monitoring the avian impacts of turbines near Palm Springs, California. Photo: Tom Fowlks

Obedient, nimble, and armed with a sense of smell thought to be up to 100,000 times stronger than our own, dogs aren’t just great companions—they’re the ultimate coworkers. They were the first animals humans domesticated, and in our thousands of years together we’ve realized they can handle an array of difficult tasks. Today dogs help with everything from rescuing people trapped in avalanches to sniffing out coronavirus cases.

Increasingly, they’re using their canine superpowers on behalf of wildlife conservation. With their turbo-charged scent receptors, dogs are uniquely qualified for green jobs we can’t do alone. They can turn up endangered species, track down poachers, root out invasive pests, and prevent the spread of wildlife diseases. “Their potential is honestly boundless,” says Jennifer Hartman, a handler and cofounder of conservation canine company Rogue Detection Teams. “There’s so much these dogs can do.”

Their assignments may come with high stakes and harsh conditions, but the dogs don’t know it’s work. “It’s just like going out and having fun,” says Marc Bekoff, a University of Colorado Boulder behavioral ecologist who has studied dogs for decades. “When dogs get to exercise their senses for conservation, everybody wins.”

A seabird’s last line of defense

People often tell Sammy that he is a very good boy, and with good reason. This 5-year-old, 26-pound Shiba Inu never shies away from a hard day’s work and happily shares his bed with his feline sister, Melchy. And for nearly four years he has helped prevent ecological catastrophe in one of the world’s most important places for seabirds. 

Sammy lives in Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, with his handler, Naomi Cordeiro. Together they work to prevent rats and mice from setting foot on the subantarctic island of South Georgia, whose government employs Cordeiro as a biosecurity dog handler.

Though remote and unforgiving, with no permanent human inhabitants, this island in the South Atlantic Ocean has a place on any serious birder’s bucket list. South Georgia and its outlying archipelago, known as the South Sandwich Islands, support some of the largest penguin colonies on the planet and large numbers of albatrosses, petrels, shags, skuas, gulls, and terns. They are also home to the endemic South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit—the world’s southernmost songbird. All told, these islands host 65 million breeding birds from 30 different species each year. 

South Georgia hasn’t always been a paradise for birds. During the late 18th century, rats and mice stowed away on whaling and sealing ships and infiltrated the archipelago. For centuries after, descendants of these invaders feasted on the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds. Populations plunged, and the pipit, most of its habitat overrun, faced the threat of extinction.

South Georgia hasn’t always been a paradise for birds.

In 2011 scientists and government officials launched an ambitious plan to bring the birds back by ridding the island of rats and mice once and for all. Over the next five years, a team led by the South Georgia Heritage Trust deposited more than 300 metric tons of poison bait on the island via helicopter. The team then set traps and brought in detection dogs, also known as sniffer dogs, to survey the island for holdouts. The largest-ever eradication campaign of its kind was a success: In 2018 the island was declared rodent-free.

“That’s when the work really started,” Cordeiro says. The government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which has its offices in Stanley, needed a way to ensure that every boat that stopped by the Falklands on its way to South Georgia harbored not a single furry interloper before departing. Some rats can swim more than a mile, so every vessel—be it a tiny fishing boat or a ship full of birders—would have to be searched, even those that didn’t plan on going close to shore.

The solution was waiting in Virginia. A couple of years earlier, a family there faced the fact that they couldn’t keep up with the puppy they’d adopted, a tiny Shiba Inu with a toasted marshmallow coat. But that boundless energy was just what Megan Vick was looking for. Part of Vick’s job is to find canine candidates for Working Dogs for Conservation, a Montana-based group that partnered with the South Georgia government in 2017. She took this pup home and named him Samurai, Sammy for short.

The best trainees are often rescued or rehomed dogs whose unrelenting urge to play, while too much for most family homes, is an asset in the field. Sammy excelled in training and was soon at work on the Falklands, where he showed an immediate interest in Cordeiro. “Sammy is like a cat in a dog’s body. He’s very particular about who he associates with,” Vick says. “But the first time that he met Naomi, he jumped on her and wanted to get pets and love.” After eight weeks of instruction, Cordeiro became his new handler and companion. And Sammy thrived. “He is in his element in the Falklands,” Vick says. “There, he’s as happy as a dog can be.” 

So far Sammy has detected one mouse and one rat on southbound ships, and South Georgia has remained safe. Had they slipped past him and reproduced, those fecund stowaways could once again overrun South Georgia, negating in a few short years the enormous, costly efforts spent ridding the island of rodents. Now, the island is on a fast track to ecological restoration. Some bird species, such as the South Georgia Pipit, have already begun returning to areas where they were long absent. 

To Sammy, each search is a game, one that ends in tasty bites of chicken and cheese. But for South Georgia’s rebounding bird colonies, the rewards are far more profound.

On the trail of a deadly disease

Hawaii’s lush wetlands are unlike any in the contiguous United States. The state’s coastal lagoons, mountain bogs, and brackish ponds provide habitat for endangered and endemic birds, including the Hawaiian Black-necked Stilt; the Laysan Duck; and the Hawaiian Duck, or Koloa Maoli. 

Unfortunately, these wetlands are also home to Clostridium botulinum, a deadly bacterium that has killed thousands of the state’s waterfowl and shorebirds. This naturally occurring pathogen can produce a neurotoxin that, if ingested, causes a paralytic disease known as avian botulism.

When a bird dies of botulism, insects and other invertebrates feed on the carcass and accumulate the biotoxin in their bodies. If they are eaten by another bird, it contracts the disease and the cycle repeats. The longer a dead duck is left on a landscape, the greater the chance of the disease spreading to other birds.

Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge has been a hotspot for the illness since it became a chronic problem there in 2011. Over the next five years, avian botulism sickened or killed at least 931 waterbirds, 90 percent of which were federally endangered, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. More than half of the casualties were Koloa Maoli, a species that numbers fewer than 2,000 individuals in the wild.

Wildlife managers and volunteers did their best to remove bird carcasses from the refuge, but they inevitably missed some. Every dead bird they failed to find “could create 100 other carcasses,” says Michelle Reynolds, a wildlife biologist formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey who spent years studying avian botulism in Hawaii. “It was like fighting a wildfire.”

Around 2014 Reynolds heard about William Chi, a veterinarian who was using detection dogs to find birds killed by botulism in Taiwan. Unlike humans, dogs don’t need to see a dead bird to locate it, and they can detect a carcass from farther away. Intrigued, Reynolds reached out to Chi and was quickly sold on the idea.

Together with Hanalei staff and Kyoko Johnson, a Hawaii-based detection-dog trainer, Reynolds mounted a study in 2017 to measure just how effective dogs could be at locating carcasses in the refuge’s dense vegetation. Four dogs underwent training to learn how to sniff out casualties without harming live birds. Reynolds and her colleagues then hid bird carcasses around the refuge (in bug-proof decoys to prevent disease transmission) and measured how long it took the human handlers to find them with and without canine assistance.

With dogs, the teams found dead birds more quickly, and they found more of them than human-only teams searching on foot and by ATV. The distances at which the dogs were able to detect the carcasses were also impressive—in one case, the dog picked up the scent from more than 275 feet away. 

Reynolds, who now works as a science adviser and dog handler at Conservation Dogs of Hawaii, which Johnson founded in 2018, hopes the results demonstrate the role canines can play on the frontlines of disease control—and beyond. “I could list hundreds of applications where dogs can help conservation biologists and resource managers be more effective at protecting wildlife,” she says. 

Inspired by the study, Hanalei created its own volunteer-run detection-dog program. While botulism still occurs in the refuge, wildlife advocates look forward to a day when outbreaks are rare. Vulnerable species like the Koloa Maoli already stand a better chance, now that they have a team of super sniffers working hard to ensure their survival.

A hunt for bird-saving data

In the desert north of Palm Springs, California, massive wind turbine blades slice through a starry sky. On the rocky terrain below, a search is underway. This work happens at night to avoid the worst of the triple-digit summer heat, but that makes it even harder for human eyes to see what this team is looking for among the thorny shrubs: a mangled wing, a clump of feathers, or other remains of aerial creatures that flew too close to the whirling blades.

Fortunately, the searchers include a bunch of sharp-nosed workaholics with names like Indy, Lady, and Filson. Since 2018 sniffer dogs have been helping to scour this harsh terrain to aid scientists and energy producers in better understanding the wildlife impacts of wind farms. The body parts they find may be gruesome, but each one is a data point that will ultimately help to protect other birds and bats as companies install more turbines to drive the transition to clean energy.  

Wind farms aren’t the avian abattoirs they’re often made out to be, compared with bigger killers like building glass and outdoor cats. But hundreds of thousands of birds and bats die from turbine collisions each year, making them a real concern as wildlife populations decline. And it’s an increasingly pressing issue; electricity generation from wind, already the country’s top source of renewable energy, grew by 14 percent between 2019 and 2020.

Wind operators can take steps to reduce mortality, such as playing loud sounds through speakers to keep birds away, temporarily stopping blades from spinning as migrating flocks or endangered species approach, or, most fundamentally, siting turbines in areas least likely to do harm. But those measures only work when energy companies and regulators have a solid grasp on interactions between wind farms and wildlife. “This is the most important effort that wind energy developers can do early as they begin to explore a site that may be developed,” says Garry George, director of Audubon’s Clean Energy Initiative. “In that way, conservation and wind energy can go hand in hand.”

If you need to know how many animals a wind farm kills, it helps to have some paws, too. In a 2020 study using randomly placed carcasses, human searchers found just 6 percent of bats and 30 percent of small birds. Partnering with canines, however, dramatically improves the quality of data. In that same study, detection dogs found 96 percent of bats and 90 percent of small birds. Other research has yielded similar results. 

Outside Palm Springs, in an area called San Gorgonio Pass, dogs are putting those skills to work to answer key questions about the wind industry’s future. Some of the nation’s first utility-scale wind farms were built here in the early 1980s, and their operators have begun replacing decades-old turbines with larger, more efficient models that can each generate as much power as a cluster of the old ones. With energy companies in California and beyond shifting to larger turbines, conservationists feared the bigger blades might be harder for birds to avoid.

To help find out, scientists with the USGS and Bureau of Land Management enlisted Washington State–based Rogue Detection Teams. “Our dogs can run through a boulder field and find tiny bits of a wing or a bird foot,” says Heath Smith, the group’s director and lead instructor. “They actually run out of the house to try and go do that.”

Thanks to this skillful searching, the scientists were able to collect a wealth of data they couldn’t have obtained otherwise. Their initial results, published in March, suggest that a wind farm’s bird and bat casualties depend less on the size of its turbines than on its overall energy output. While it’s sad to find so many animals killed by turbines, researchers are extracting every bit of information they can to help improve the design of future wind projects, says Tara Conkling, a USGS wildlife biologist and one of the study’s authors.

Important questions remain about the industry’s true impacts and how to achieve the necessary, rapid build-out of renewables with the least possible harm to wildlife. “We’re still very much at the beginning of this process,” Conkling says. At San Gorgonio and wind farms around the world, the hum of whirling turbines is now punctuated by the barks of four-legged researchers, following their noses toward the answers.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2021 issue as “The New Bird Dogs.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.