Creatures of the night

Published 27 Mar 2018 

On Pullen Pullen Reserve, the age-old adage of ‘cat vs dog’ is playing out to the benefit of Night Parrots and other native species.

Bush Heritage volunteer Shane Jackson and his Catahoula dog Annie. Photo Leanne Hales.
Bush Heritage volunteer Shane Jackson and his Catahoula dog Annie. Photo Leanne Hales.
In 19th century France, a physician by the name of Paul Broca divided the world’s animals into two categories: the smellers and the non-smellers. Dogs, along with most other mammals, fell into the former category, and humans into the latter.

Today, much of Paul’s thinking has been debunked, but what has held true is the extraordinary smelling ability of dogs. With around 50 times more smell receptors and 40 times more brain space devoted to processing scents than humans, they're natural-born sniffers.

“A dog’s sense of smell is so incredibly acute that they can pick up on the minutest of scent particles,” says Bush Heritage volunteer Shane Jackson. “They’ll find things we don’t even know exist.”

Catahoula dog Annie. Photo Leanne Hales.
Catahoula dog Annie. Photo Leanne Hales.
Recently, Shane and his feral cat detection dog Annie ventured out to Pullen Pullen Reserve in western Queensland, where feral cats are thought to pose a dangerous threat to the resident population of endangered Night Parrots, as well as many other native animals.

The nose knows

Over five days and nights, Shane and Annie patrolled Pullen Pullen’s border fences, watercourses, sandstone plateaus and spinifex plains looking for cats. At 56,000 hectares, there’s a lot of space for cats to hide from Shane’s keen eyes, but avoiding Annie’s sensitive snout is not so easy.

“Cats are stealthy, and if disturbed they'll go into hiding and disappear,” says Bush Heritage Healthy Landscape Manager Dr Alex Kutt. “But with a dog like Annie you’re conducting a scent-based search, so you’re not relying on visual clues.”

Annie, a two-year-old Catahoula, has been trained not to kill feral cats, but rather to track them and hold them in one spot, much like a sheepdog corrals sheep.

Creeklines on Pullen Pullen Reserve, Qld. Photo by Wild Vista Digital Productions.
Creeklines on Pullen Pullen Reserve, Qld. Photo by Wild Vista Digital Productions.
“That’s the other advantage of using a dog – it means we can find, catch and collar cats to track their movements around Night Parrot habitat, which is what we want to do,” says Alex.

The bigger picture

In many ways, managing for feral cats is the same as managing for a threatened species: before you begin, you need to have a good understanding of where the species lives, what habitat it prefers, how it uses the landscape and which other species it's interacting with. Without that knowledge, your management could have unintended consequences.

“What we don’t want to do at Pullen Pullen is to go in there willy-nilly and shoot cats for the sake of it,” says Alex. “We know cats are there and we know predation is a threat to Night Parrots, but we need a much better understanding of the nature of that threat, and how cats interact with other predators, like dingoes.”

A feral cat caught on a motion-sensor camera.
A feral cat caught on a motion-sensor camera.
For that reason, Bush Heritage is embarking on a project that will see us track and map feral cat activity on Pullen Pullen, with support from the Threatened Species Recovery (TSR) Hub of the Australian Government's National Environmental Science Program. And when that project starts, cat detection dogs such as Annie will be vital to its success.

“We want to find out what parts of the reserve feral cats show a preference for: are they staying near creek lines and in the timber? Or do they prefer spinifex country? Are they active near Night Parrot nests or the feeding grounds?” he says.

Following the collection of a live specimen in 1912, no live Night Parrots were sighted for almost 100 years, leading most scientists to presume the species extinct. So, when the population on what is now Pullen Pullen was discovered in 2013, Bush Heritage immediately began negotiating with the Queensland government to transfer the land’s pastoral lease into its own name.

Today, Bush Heritage is working with the Night Parrot Recovery Team, the University of Queensland’s Green Fire Science Lab, and the TSR Hub to learn more about the Night Parrot’s biology and threats to its survival, while also protecting other native species that call the reserve home.

The upcoming project with the TSR Hub will help to fill critical gaps in our knowledge of the species, ensuring our management strategies give these mysterious birds the best chance at survival and recovery.

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