Ornithologists are using drones to eavesdrop on songbirds

by admin February 18, 2017 at 8:09 pm

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

Results of their drone study were published in the peer-reviewed journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances this week. The study concluded that data gathered by drones was about as effective as data gathered by human experts on the ground in deriving an accurate population estimate of songbirds. The full study, “The feasibility of counting songbirds using unmanned aerial vehicles,” was authored by Gettysburg College environmental studies professor Andy Wilson with two undergraduate students in his lab, Janine Barr and Megan Zagorski. 

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

It’s not just steep hillsides but muddy marshes, icy conditions and man-made 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. Constant singing burns a lot of energy. If a bird senses that its songs won’t be heard, due to noise from human activity especially, they may stop singing to save energy. A lack of birdsongs, as the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson portrays, can indicate burgeoning environmental problems that can have dire consequences to human life, too.