Using drones to monitor bird nests

Submitted by Johan on 28 January 2015.

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Aerial picture of Jelmer Poelstra and Matthias Weissensteiner taken with the UAV at nest height.

In late winter 2013/14 we, the crow fieldwork crew of the Wolf Lab at the Evolutionary Biology Centre in Uppsala, Sweden, started planning the next field season. The goal was to sample two dozen hooded and carrion crow nestlings from sites in Sweden and Germany respectively. This was part of an ongoing research project, addressing the speciation genetics of crows using a variety of genomic tools (see recent paper in Science: Poelstra et al. 2014). For the success of the project it was crucial to obtain nestlings at a certain age to hand-raise them in a common garden environment.

Two carrion crow nestlings at a field site in Germany.

From previous field seasons we have learnt that this simple sounding task can be rather cumbersome. Whereas finding a crow’s nest is fairly straightforward, determining whether it is active and obtaining information on the age and number of nestlings can be difficult and involves extensive tree climbing, often to find deserted nests.

Jochen Wolf at a crow’s nest.

Pondering how to approach this problem, inspiration came from Jochen Wolf’s 10-year old son, who at the time was very fascinated by remotely controlled helicopters, which were for sale in even the smallest toy stores. Several hours of searching on the Internet and YouTube video watching later, we concluded that this might potentially be a valuable tool for our purpose and gave it a try. After the first few trial flights it was clear that this technology poses a huge advantage compared to climbing and we decided to share our experience with the ornithological community. We hope that this case study can be of use to others in the field.

Matthias Weissensteiner, Author


Follow the link below to read the full paper


Below you can watch two videos taken by the UAV.