Meet Bea the burrowing owl with an appetite for YouTube videos

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More than 90,000 cat videos are uploaded to YouTube every day, according to the platform’s latest Culture and Trends report, which reflects the exaggerated human interest in the content.

In recent years, cats have even popped up as audiences, with high-definition videos of squirrels, hungry birds and chipmunks to keep Mr. Fluff busy. (Dog-related content, for what it’s worth, doesn’t get nearly the views.)

It seems the appetite for video has skyrocketed in Houston, Minnesota, where a young burrowing owl named Bea is mesmerized by YouTube videos playing on a cellphone at the International Owl Center. It brings hyper focus to the sounds and movements of birds, rodents and insects on screen.

The news will bring a smile to the owl center’s supporters, but something deep in the raptor’s DNA has opened a way to work better with the owl.

Bea, 4½ months old and the size of “a pop can on stilts,” is a breeding bird at the Owl Center who was bred in captivity, said Karla Bloem, the center’s executive director. Bea’s parents from Kansas could not be released back into the wild.

In her young life, Bea has grown accustomed to being treated by and in the company of people – it’s all she’s ever known. And yet the owl is a product of its kind, known for preferring open country and grassy pastures to hunt prey and to nest in holes they scrape out with their long legs or hooked beaks, or take over from gophers and other critters.

Burrowing owls are an endangered bird in some parts of North America. Their decline has been broadly linked to the impact of agriculture and development on burrowing wildlife habitat. And it’s the only owl species on the Minnesota state’s endangered list; The last official sighting was in 2016, Bloem said.

Like the cats attracted to YouTube, Bea’s predatory radar lights up at the sounds and movements of ground creatures, as well as calls from other species. The response is what any wild owl would do, Bloem said, a function of evolution.

“To the [Bea]it’s just hardwired,” she added.

The staff took advantage of Bea’s keen awareness as they found ways to conveniently shuttle her from the Owl Center to her off-site home. A plastic stretcher with a peephole made her nervous, perhaps because her vision was limited, Bloem said.

Bea now voluntarily climbs into a soft-side tote bag with mesh windows, drawn to YouTube videos of birds, mice and insects — sometimes even a picture of a butterfly moving — playing on a cell phone planted deep in the tote. The combination of a carrier with more lines of sight and the cell phone video works.

Research papers on the internet are overflowing with studies on real vs. artificial stimuli and their effects on wildlife behavior. The overall tenor: There is still a lot to discover. Lori Arent, associate director at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, said it’s hard to know how a captive bird interprets what’s playing in a video. Does it know that a mouse is a mouse? Part of the appeal, it seems, is movement and sound on screen, and it’s attributed to what’s inherent in birds of prey, whether wild or captive: a basic hunting instinct.

Acknowledging the biological mysteries, Bloem said that Bea’s experience is unique and using video playback does not provide a fuller explanation for the species’ extraordinary vision and hearing of owls or raptors.

“What works for each bird as an individual is exploring and experimenting with what that person likes,” she said.

Bloem added, “Bea reacts as if what she’s seeing is real, but I don’t take any meaning from it other than what she perceives as prey vs. threat vs. something harmless moving.”

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