This Advanced Technology Helps Ecologists Count Birds Accurately

Drone technology has advanced in many ways since this type of military technology made headlines overseas. These machines have gotten lighter and easier to handle, so much so that ordinary citizens can purchase and fly drones. Scientists have also found ways to help the environment with this affordable technology.

Researchers in Australia used drones to capture aerial photos of huge flocks of birds along shorelines, capturing images of penguin, tern, and frigatebird colonies along beaches. At the same time the drones were aloft, ornithologists conducted a traditional bird count on the ground, with researchers taking notes. The aerial photos gave ecologists a more accurate picture because terrain and the birds themselves can obscure a human's line of sight on the ground. Surprisingly, the aerial drones did not disturb or startle birds on the ground. The results of the study may advance drone technology for conservationists.

For this type of technology to take off within the scientific community, the researchers said they must conduct more aerial studies to produce more accurate counts, but drone flights should show better results than traditional ground counts. This proved true for the initial trial in Australia. When more than one person counted birds from the aerial photos, the numbers showed fewer fluctuations, with higher counts from the air. Ground counts tended to vary more wildly, which means that scientists receive better information from the drones. Drones in the air also lead to less time spent in the field, as scientists can take pictures, save the data for later, and count birds in the lab instead of spending hours at the site.

This is not the first instance of the use of drones for conservation. In the United States, conservation agents have found ways to repurpose old military drones for vital field work. Rangers at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado used unmanned Raven drones to count sandhill cranes along rugged terrain. Scientists first used drones to count birds in 2010 when a small plane gathered data over a remote island off the coast of Spain. The drone provided coverage to an area that humans couldn't easily reach, so remote data collection shows another distinct advantage that drones have over human-based counts on the ground.

Unmanned drones provide conservationists with a new tool that expands humanity's ability to gather knowledge and help wildlife on this planet. Learn how drones are improving conservation efforts in Mexico by providing security against poachers.

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