Ornithologists are making use of drones to eavesdrop on songbirds

When conservationists put drones to work in field study, they typically function as flying eyes that gather imagery of the habitat and wildlife under. Now, ornithologists from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania are utilizing drones as flying ears to monitor songbirds in the Appalachian Mountains.

Benefits of their drone study have been published in the peer-reviewed journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances this week. The study concluded that information gathered by drones was about as powerful as information gathered by human experts on the ground in deriving an correct population estimate of songbirds. The full study, “The feasibility of counting songbirds making use of unmanned aerial vehicles,” was authored by Gettysburg College environmental research professor Andy Wilson with two undergraduate students in his lab, Janine Barr and Megan Zagorski. 

Wilson said he had the notion to use drones to listen to songbirds when he was studying Cerulean Warblers in the area just a handful of seasons earlier. “It was a hilly area and we have been performing surveys mostly from ridge tops. I knew we got a excellent sample of that habitat, but we were missing steep slopes to either side of us,” the scientist stated.

It’s not just steep hillsides but muddy marshes, icy conditions and man-produced obstacles from highways to dams, that can block scientists from all the places they’d like to study wildlife. In ornithology, Wilson said, “Sometimes traversing terrain can disturb the birds and stop them from singing.”

Birds sing to mark their territory and attract mates. Continual singing burns a lot of power. If a bird senses that its songs won’t be heard, due to noise from human activity specially, they might quit singing to save power. A lack of birdsongs, as the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson portrays, can indicate burgeoning environmental issues that can have dire consequences to human life, too.

Wilson’s group tied audio recorders to drones with a fishing line eight meters long to eavesdrop on birds. The lines had been long enough that the microphones wouldn’t choose up noise from the drones themselves. The set up also allowed drones to hover at a reasonable distance from the birds they set out to observe. Rather than flying for miles, the drones hovered to act like a human ornithologist conducting what’s named a point count. In a point count, an observer jots down a note about all the birds they can see and hear from a specific place for a set period of time.

The Gettysburg College researchers utilized DJI’s Matrice one hundred quadcopter drones to conduct their study. Study-grade drones utilized by the likes of massive agricultural companies would have been nice, Wilson stated, but aren’t particularly inexpensive for academic purposes.

Whilst population estimates derived from drone-recorded birdsongs have been normally of the very same higher top quality as estimates made with data gathered by ornithologists on the ground, there were a couple of exceptions. Unmanned aerial autos didn’t pick up reduce frequency birdsongs like those of the Mourning Dove. And it was hard to suss out a count of Gray Catbirds, due to the fact of the higher density of their calls. But audio information from drones worked to count other species common to the Appalachians.

Wilson tells TechCrunch his lab will continue to explore the feasibility of drones to study bird populations. He is arranging new studies to evaluate whether or not, and at what point, drones might effect bird behavior. For example, do birds react to drones flown at 50, 60 or much more meters away? And how do they adjust their behavior, if yes? He also wants to examine the top quality of birdsong data gathered by recorders on the ground, to that of drones.

Wilson stated environmental scientists normally would like to use drones in their studies, but two issues are required to embrace them far more frequently. Even best of the line quadcopters only fly for about 22 minutes in clear conditions per battery, Wilson said. And they’re nevertheless loud adequate that scientists are concerned about disturbing wildlife. “It’s not just the scientific community that would want this. I feel there’s a common market for quieter drones,” he stated.

Indeed, no one wants a whining or roaring robot flying overhead.

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