Nationwide project aims to map Australia’s favourite predator birds

“I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry.” Macbeth, William Shakespeare.

Is that an owl hooting? Or a car?

Researchers are after volunteers to help map five native Australian owlspecies, by listening to short recordings made in the bush.

The results will provide important information about the range and numbers ofthese beloved birds of prey. They will also help researchers developartificial intelligence (AI) systems to use in a new field of science, knownas “eco-acoustics”.

The project is called Hoot Detective , and is produced by ABC Science incollaboration with the Australian Acoustic Observatory (A2O) for NationalScience Week. It will commence online on Monday 9 August and run until the end of August.

The idea is to hunt for Powerful, Barking, Boobook, Barn, and Masked owls. Formore about each species, visit

For the past two years, scientists from the A2O have placed hundreds ofautonomous recording devices in 90 sites across forests, grasslands and otherecosystems across every state and territory except the ACT. Sound snippetsthat might – might – include noises made by owls have been identified andcollated by an artificial intelligence system being built at the Observatory.

The result is a trove comprising hours of recordings, divided into 10-secondsections.

“It’s a fascinating exercise,” explained the ABC’s Dr Ann Jones. “Simply sitat your computer, call up a recording, and listen out for the owls. You hearwild Australia at night – and sometimes it’s surprisingly tricky todistinguish, say, a barn owl among noisy insects, chorusing frogs or even windor cars.”

The Hoot Detective team hope that when all the results are collated, they willfind insights into owl populations that go beyond simply range and density.They want to discover, for instance, whether owl calls change, or whethersmall owls shut up when big owls come to visit.

“This is about using acoustics to understand the natural environment,” saidProfessor Paul Roe, who leads the Observatory, and is based at the QueenslandUniversity of Technology.

“We work with a lot of ecologists. We’re interested in any animal that makesnoise, but in this case, we’re focussed on owls.”

Professor Roe said the ornithological information uncovered by the nation’sHoot Detectives will be very useful.

“The ecologists will love it,” he said, “And so will we computer scientists.It will help us to improve the accuracy of the AI we’re developing. Up untilnow, most AI research around the world has concentrated on either image orhuman speech recognition – using it to interpret the natural world is still inits early stages.”

Eco-acoustics, he added, is a field that will produce huge amounts of datathat can be used to inform long-term strategies for land management andconservation.

Hoot Detective is the online project for National Science Week 2021,undertaken by ABC Science in collaboration with A2O, Queensland University ofTechnology and the University of New England, with funding through theAustralian Government’s Inspiring Australia strategy.

Video: Barking Owl, BIBYTV on Youtube/BirdLife Australia

Image: Barking owl, Kim Wormald

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