Drones a Source of Disturbance for Wintering Water Birds

Pink-footed geese flush, or take flight en masse, when frightened. (Photo courtesy British Trust for Ornithology)

(CN) — New findings published Tuesday suggest that the improvements and more widespread use of drone technology is affecting well-known wintering water birds, scaring them away from their normal migration grounds.

The term water bird refers to a group of extremely diverse aquatic birds, including ducks, geese, swans, herons and more. Flocks choose various locations to hunker down for the winter, but for the study published Tuesday in the journal Bird Study, researchers at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in Scotland chose to investigate the flocks that travel down to Britain from the Arctic.

Drone technology has been on the rise in recent years, and is now used for deliveries, surveillance, environmental studies, recreation and more. According to Business Insider, the market for commercial and civilian drones is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19% between 2015 and 2020, with 5% growth on the military side.

One impressive bit of drone technology is a flapping wing drone that can mimic the complex flight patterns of the swift, and has the potential to perform indoor pollination of vertical plants. Although this design comes close to replicating the movements of the bird, the developers noted that they are unsure how birds will react to a device such as this. They noted that smaller birds tend to avoid the flying tech, while larger birds in flocks have been known to attack them.

Now however, as this technology comes closer to and invades wildlife habitats, it poses a threat to native species. In the same way animals tend to abandon their homes following too much human intervention, the authors warn that birds may leave their well-known wintering grounds if they become spooked by drones flying nearby. 

For example, if a drone flies too close to a nest it can scare off the adult birds, leaving the eggs or fledglings behind, or the adult bird might attack the drone to protect the nest and become injured by the blades. Furthermore, if a flock is trying to feed and must fly away or relocate due to drone disruption, it leaves them less time to feed and results in more energy being used to evade the device.

This could impact every aspect of the water birds’ delicately balanced lives, including feeding availability, protection from predators, breeding opportunities, and migration patterns. This would negatively affect birds during the winter when they travel to feed before mating season, and more so to endangered, protected species.

For their study, one of the researchers flew a common quadcopter drone toward a flock of water birds at an average height and speed while another observed the birds’ reactions with a telescope. They were looking for any signs that the birds were in distress, including warning signals, stressed behavior, or flight.

They found that smaller flocks were less likely to fly away than larger ones, and the larger flocks flew greater distances when spooked than the smaller. The authors noted this was likely because the larger flocks tended to have at least one easily scared member who upon fleeing from the drone would cause others to follow.

The researchers chose flocks of birds who lived near three different habitats: coastal, freshwater and farmland, and they saw distinct reactions to each environment. For example, flocks further inland that were more used to human activity were less likely to react to the drone, while more secluded, coastal flocks were more likely to flee. Lastly, birds on the farmland were more likely to react to the drones because of their heightened attention watching out for predators.

“While we expected that the drone would cause large flocks to flush, we were surprised that birds hardly seemed to respond to the drone at all at those inland lochs where there was already lots of human activity taking place,” said lead author David Jarrett. “Hopefully this research can be used to help inform guidance and regulations on drone use in proximity to wild birds.”

Drones are undoubtedly a valuable technological advancement. Already they have allowed scientists to observe ecosystems otherwise far out of reach and have led to important discoveries. Furthermore, drones have successfully protected birds flying near airports, leading them away from planes that could otherwise pose dangers to both birds and aircraft.

Scientists had hoped that drones could play an important role in the study of these birds, but the authors say that it would take extensive research to utilize them humanely and in a nondisruptive manner. They warn that if these flocks did not become accustomed to the increased presence of drones near their homes, they would expend more time and energy evading them to the detriment of the flocks’ health.

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