Flying robots controlled by remote controls or software-controlled flight plans in embedded systems that work in conjunction with GPS. Does it remind you of the cartoon from the 1960s where a family named the Jetsons were living in a futuristic world where they would hover in space and robots were a common presence in the household? Nope. It’s a formal definition for a drone.
Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that can be navigated with a human on board or not. First used in the military, their popularity has grown. Many people now fly drones as a hobby. Like any other hobby, skill levels range from beginner to pro. The purposes they’re used for are just as diverse.
Is There Really Cause for Concern?
Many birdwatchers are against drone use in bird habitats or open areas where birds are known to nest. They worry these robotic invaders will chase away the birds they’ve waited hours to spot. Some agree that a drone might disturb nesting birds, which could result in frightened birds or chicks left vulnerable to predators. Others express concerns about drones accidentally striking birds.
Videos recorded in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area show footage of a drone flying by an eagle nest. The owner most likely was not aware of the nest. This raised questions about how much an eagle in its nest would put up with from the unmanned aircraft. But there’s another side to the argument and research by ecologists and ornithologists alike are turning up surprising results.
In a 2015 study by seabird ecologist David Gremillet, using three quadrocopters, Gremillet’s team of researchers discovered that certain water birds were not as ‘spooked’ by drones as they had expected them to be. In several hundred trials involving flamingos, greenshanks, and mallard ducks, they found that drones could get within 4 meters of 80 percent of the bird population without stressing or disturbing the birds. The color or speed of the drone had little to do with disturbing the birds. They did discover that the angle at which the drones flew at the birds mattered. When the drone descended at a 90 degree angle, the birds would fly away or at the least move away.
The Laws of Drone Use
While more research is needed before we can deem drones safe in bird habitats, experts have concluded that there aren’t significant laws in place regarding the use of drones. The very basic guidelines from the FAA include:
- No flying over populated areas (mainly referring to humans)
- The maximum elevation is four hundred feet and lower if near an airport
As you can imagine, these vague guidelines do little to protect the bird population. Questions of ethics have come into play, such as when documenting a species nesting habits, how close can you come with a drone?
Drone Hazards to Birds
Drone use could potentially benefit researchers with the opportunity to get photographs unobtainable in any other way. But, if used improperly, a drone has the potential to harass, harm, or endanger birds. Drones that are flown too close to nests could drive adults away, leaving eggs and/or chicks vulnerable. In turn, a bird that is interrupted by a drone while feeding may leave a nutritious food source and be forced to forage elsewhere with less nutritious food sources. The biggest hazard drones pose is midair collision. If a drone collides with a flock of birds in the air, it could pose life-threatening injuries to the birds. No formal reports of drone and bird collisions are on file. Still, increasing usage of drones make this an increasingly realistic risk.
How Drones Can Help Birds
We need to address the dangers drones pose to birds with a goal of creating solutions. Research, debate, and much discussion among ornithologists and birdwatchers has brought forward widely accepted ways to use drones around birds:
Annual Bird Counts
Annual bird counts across the country have been going on since the early 1900s. When used properly, drones can aid these counts in areas where there are less people able to assist. With drones able to get accurate counts, this could help track changes in population or conditions that impact conservation efforts.
Monitoring Endangered Species
Using a drone, scientists can safely and efficiently monitor endangered species without disturbing or stressing birds. Drones allow them to monitor and collect data from nests that otherwise might be stressed by regular human interaction.
Educating and Encouraging Bird Conservation
Just as drones have proven useful for commercial filming projects, they can be used to capture video to educate people about birds. This education content can serve to interest more people in birding and bird conservation.
Help Keep Birds Safe Around Drones
With conservation in mind, you can help ensure birds are safe from drones by getting involved with your local chapter of the Audubon Society. While the National Park System has banned drones in all its 58 national parks, we don’t know whether the bird population will get any special protections from Congress. The Audubon Society is your best source to find out if that stands to change anytime soon. For birders who are considering using a drone for birding, having an extensive knowledge of the effects of drones on birds will help you make decisions that do not pose harm to bird populations.