What Impact Will Drones Have on Birds?
Taking up the pertinent question of how the newest form of recreational aviation technology affects avians is Liz Greene, who hails from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. She’s a lover of all things geek and is happiest when cuddling with her dogs and catching up on the latest Marvel movies. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene or dig deeper into her internal musings on InstantLo. This is Liz’s first contribution to 10,000 Birds.
The rise in drone popularity over the past few years has been meteoric — and in our typical human arrogance, we’ve once again ignored the fact that for the past 150 million years, the sky has belonged to the birds.
While we know that bird strikes on airplanes are devastating to both parties, airplanes usually only encounter birds during takeoff and landing; high altitude meetings are rare. However, drones operate at an altitude of 500 feet or below — meaning they’re in the flight zone of most non-migrating birds.
This brings up the obvious question of how their presence will affect birds. While private sector drones haven’t been around long enough to give us much data, this is what we know so far.
Conservationists at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have been using remote controlled drones to watch the nests of endangered breeds and monitor the progress of reintroduced species. They’ve found the ultra quiet drones to be a perfect alternative to a team of scientists trampling through the birds’ environment, causing a disturbance.
Using drone technology, they’ve been able to observe the breeding patterns of bitterns and marsh harriers and keep an eye on how cranes and corncrakes are progressing as they are reintroduced to the UK — all without upsetting precious habitat, Furthermore, the thermal imaging camera is able to track the birds at night, when many of the species are most active.
While drones have the potential be a great tool in the world of wildlife conservation, they can also pose a serious problem for the animals they’re trying to protect.
In a recent study, a team of French researchers set out to test whether a drone’s color, speed, and angle of approach affected different groups of birds. The researchers flew a quiet quadcopter drone more than 200 times at different angles and speeds near populations of semi-captive mallard ducks, wild flamingos, and common greenshanks — watching the birds for signs of stress, such as head or tail movements or flying away.
They found that in 80 percent of the approaches, the birds didn’t display any signs of stress until the drones flew within 15 feet of them. They also didn’t seem to care much about the approach angle, except when the drone descended from directly above the bird — most likely because predator attacks usually come from above.
However, this study only used the birds’ outward behavior as a gauge of stress — they didn’t measure other stress indicators, such as increased heart rate or elevated levels of the stress hormone corticosterone. Over time, it’s these physiological changes that can disrupt animals’ breeding or rearing habits.
A study by wildlife ecologist Mark Ditmer recently found that overhead flights by drones caused a significant jump in the heart rate of wild bears — this despite the bears outwards signs of indifference. It’s quite possible that further research into the internal stress indicators of birds may reveal similar findings.
This raises the question of whether or not drones can cause serious harm to birds. So far, there aren’t any reports of bird deaths caused by drones. However, videos posted on YouTube already reveal a pattern of amateur pilots driving birds away with poorly steered recreational drones — something that could potentially cause problems during nesting time or in sensitive habitats. There are also numerous videos of strikes from territorial birds, that while vindicating are also worrisome. It’s unknown whether those birds were able to fly away unscathed, or if certain features of the drone have the potential to have caused them harm.
But how can we protect animals from drones in the hands of irresponsible pilots? In 2014, the National Park Service banned drone use in all 58 national parks in order to protect wildlife and precious ecological landmarks. Even drone retailers and manufacturers are getting in on the game. Both Drone World and Parrot have sections in their safety agreements and user guides advising pilots to avoid domestic pets and wildlife.
As for bird watchers who want to get into the drone game, the best advice is to take a cue from researchers who use drones. Enclose heavyweight blades with guards to protect birds in case of collision. Don’t get too close to birds — especially the territorial ones. And above all, be mindful of noise levels around flocks or nesting birds.
Image © Womackke