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1000 Fake Ducks

It is vital that we are able to monitor bird populations but it can be very difficult to count birds when there are hundreds or thousands of them in the same place. Trying to count birds from the ground can result in highly inaccurate figures. It is hard to distinguish individuals in a colony. The birds might move before a human has had the time to count them all and the presence of the human can scare the birds off.

Conservationists have been evolving new and more accurate ways to count birds.

Counting Birds from the Air

It is much easier to count birds from the air and so this is clearly a situation where a drone could help. Drones can be used to take pictures of colonies from the air which can then be utilised to count the birds. But how can you gauge the degree of accurate that is possible when you can’t be sure how many birds were there in the first place?

Testing the Theory

Jarrod Hodgson and his colleagues at the University of Adelaide in Australia had already discovered that bird counts from aerial pictures were more accurate than those made by humans on the ground but they needed to establish how much more accurate. So, they set up an experiment using 1000 plastic ducks! They could then be sure exactly how many birds were present.

Ducks on the Beach

The ducks were placed on a beach and then people tried to count how many there were from the ground and a drone took aerial images from which a further count was made. The highest-quality drone images – taken from altitudes of 30 metres – produced counts which were 90 per cent more accurate than those made by the humans on the ground.

The team also developed a new machine learning system to count the birds in the photographs automatically. This proved to be about as accurate as a human counting from a photograph.

New technology for Conservation

The research has demonstrated that there is great potential for using new technology to produce more accurate bird counts. Aerial images are also useful for monitoring the outline and position of a colony and to continually track the number of birds which are present. The use of drones is also less destructive than people walking through colonies where there may be eggs and nests.

In the UK, the RSPB is using drones to monitor seabirds. The machines could reduce the need for using boats which is a dangerous endeavour as the vessels often have to be positioned close to rocky cliffs.

Drones are proving to be extremely useful equipment for conservationists. It is likely that many more uses for them will be discovered in the future.

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