Drones and birds aren't always the best of friends. The internet is rich with videographic evidence of hawks and eagles attacking drones, tearing the unmanned aerial intruders out of the sky. Yet for all their natural animosity to intruders, birds could stand to benefit from drones. In a new study, researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, wanted to see if drones were better at counting birds than humans, specifically so they can monitor important bird populations.
The answer was a resounding “yes”. Here's how it worked:
"Our team compared the precision of drone-derived image counts with those made at the same time by human counters on the ground for colonies of three types of seabird: frigatebirds, terns and penguins. Counters also monitored the colonies during the drone flights for signs that the birds may be startled by the presence of the drone," [lead author Jarrod] Hodgson said.
The authors found that counts using images captured by drones did not startle the birds and were consistently more similar than those taken from the ground. The authors suggest that the down-facing perspective of drone imagery reduces the likelihood of missing seabirds. In contrast, when counting from the ground, the terrain and other birds obscure the counters' line of sight.
In other words, it helps to have a bird's-eye-view when counting birds. While the researchers suggest that more work needs to be done to reduce the variance between counts, drones are definitely a useful tool for monitoring bird populations going forward.
The full study can be read at Scientific Reports.