3D-printed nests for powerful owls

Students, researchers and staff have collaborated to create and install a 3D-printed breeding hollow on campus for the threatened powerful owl.

The powerful owl (Ninox strenua) is Australia’s largest species of owl. Powerful owls naturally occupy forests in south-eastern Australia. Since colonisation, these forests have suffered from extensive land clearing, pushing owls into urban environments.

Cities provide sufficient food but limited opportunities for nesting. Trees take 150–500 years to develop hollows large enough for an adult pair and their owlets. Without nesting hollows, powerful owls will fail to breed, and populations will continue to shrink.

Mid shot of the higher section of the trunk of a blue gum tree. A cream coloured object is sitting in the fork of the trunk and a large arm of the tree, secured by a net tied to the trunk. The object is digitally printed but looks similar to honeycomb.
An artificial hollow installed in the Sydney blue gum tree, in the System Garden.
Close up image of the prosthetic owl nest on the ground. It’s bone coloured and its form on the outside is oblong and organic. On the inside we can see it’s made up of small blocks that have been stacked together in a similar way to Lego blocks.

Using the latest tech to simulate natural hollows

In response to sightings in the System Garden, at the University's Parkville campus, Deep Design Lab from Melbourne School of Design, students, ecologists and staff from the Grounds and Sustainability teams launched a project to encourage the species to breed on-campus.

The team used emerging 3D-printing technology to create an artificial breeding hollow to precisely fit the shape of the Sydney blue gum (Eucalyptus saligna) tree in the System Garden.

Computer-aided techniques assisted the design and site-selection of the hollows. Researchers printed wooden blocks and assembled them to fit the tree using augmented-reality equipment housed in NExT Lab, Melbourne School of Design. Responding to the needs of powerful owls, the assembled structure featured a ventilation chimney, a rough interior for the owls to scratch and climb and a rounded landing platform.

Cross-section diagram of the prosthetic owl nest. The total width is 720mm, with a rounded entrance edge for landing, a platform just inside the entrance for adult owls to feed fledglings inside the nest from, a ventilation chimney at the top on the other side of entrance, a cavity at the bottom for litter, a rough interior surface for scratching and climbing, and microclimate sensors.
Making a home fit for an owl! Powerful owls have special requirements for their nesting hollows such as a platform for feeding and a rough interior for climbing. These were incorporated into the design.

Sensors and cameras to monitor uptake

The project uses environmental sensors and infrared cameras to study the hollow and its inhabitants.

Using cutting-edge technology, the sensors obtain information on temperature and humidity inside the hollow every 20 minutes, allowing researchers to closely monitor the structure’s interior. Movement triggers infrared cameras that capture images, revealing the hollow’s occupants.

More about the design process

Close up of a powerful owl perched on a branch high up in a tree with a background of leaves blurred out. The owl has an egg shaped body with a smaller head and large orange irises that are looking at the camera.

Designs for other wildlife

This project demonstrates the collaborative opportunities living laboratories, such as the System Garden, provide and will act as a case study for future STEM education.

Future research will seek to improve the hollow designs and expand to other sites and species. Projects underway include developing the geometry based on 3D scans of tree hollows, testing novel materials, and creating an online platform that supports customisable and easy-to-make designs.


Dan Parker and Dr Stanislav Roudavski (Melbourne School of Design) lead this ongoing project together with collaborators that include Alex Holland, Professor Brendon McNiven, Dr Bronwyn Isaac, Jim Greenwood, Judith Alcorn, Julian Rutten, The Hemp Building Company, Knox City Council, Dr Kylie Soanes, Martin Lockett, Melbourne Tree Care, Nick Bradsworth, Rebecca Rasmussen, A/Prof Therésa Jones and Tim Uebergang. The project received support from the Australian Research Council Discovery Project DP170104010, Future Cities Grant (Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute) and William Stone Trust Fund (University of Melbourne).

For more information on this project please contact Dan Parker or Dr Stanislav Roudavski.

Contact DanContact Stanislav