Meet Bea the burrowing owl, with an appetite for YouTube videos

More than 90,000 cat videos are uploaded to YouTube daily, according to the platform’s recent Culture and Trends report and citing the outsized human interest in the content.

In recent years, cats have even become an audience, 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 nearly garner views.)

It seems the appetite for the video has jumped to cash in Houston, Minnesota, where a young burrowing owl named Bea at the International Owl Center is transfixed by the YouTube videos played on a mobile phone. It emphasizes the sounds and movements of birds, rodents and insects on screen.

The news will spark smiles from followers at the Owl Center, but something deep in the raptor’s DNA has opened up a way to work better with the owl.

Bea, 4.5 months old and the size of a “pop can on stilts,” is a training 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 into the wild.

In her young life, Bea got used to being manipulated by and in the company of people – that’s all she’s ever known. And yet the owl is a product of its kind, known to prefer the countryside and grassy pastures to pursue its prey and to nest in holes which it scratches with its long legs or its hooked beak, or which takes over from the ground squirrels and other critters.

The burrowing owl is a vulnerable bird in parts of North America. Their decline has been largely linked to the impact of agriculture and development on the habitat of burrowing fauna. And it’s the only species of owl on Minnesota’s state endangered species list; its last official sighting was in 2016, Bloem said.

Like cats drawn to YouTube, Bea’s predator radar lights up to the sound and movement of land creatures, as well as the calls of other species. The reaction is what any wild owl would do, Bloem said, based on evolution.

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

Staff leveraged Bea’s acute awareness to find ways to move her comfortably from the Owl Center to her offsite home. A plastic holder with a peephole left her nervous, possibly because her vision was limited, Bloem said.

Bea now voluntarily enters a soft stand with mesh windows, drawn to YouTube videos of birds, mice and insects – sometimes even an image of a moving butterfly – playing on a cell phone planted deep in the support. The combination of a carrier with more lines of sight and cellphone video works.

Research articles online are overflowing with studies of real and man-made stimuli and their effects on wildlife behavior. The general tenor: there is still much to explore. Lori Arent, deputy director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, said it’s hard to know how a captive bird interprets what’s happening in a video. Does he know that a mouse is a mouse? Part of the appeal, it seems, is the movements and sounds on screen, and it’s tied to what’s inherent in raptors, wild or captive: a basic instinct to hunt.

Acknowledging the biological mysteries, Bloem said Bea’s experience is unique and the use of video playback does not contain more detailed explanations of the type of exceptional sight and hearing owls or raptors have.

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

Bloem added: “Bea reacts as if what she is looking at is real, but I don’t derive any meaning from it, other than what she may perceive as prey to a threat to something harmless moving around. “

Shirley K. Rosa