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Making bird, wildlife surveys safer with innovative drone technology

May 25, 2022

A combination of drone and thermal infrared technology can reduce risks and increase efficiency

As a wildlife biologist, my job surveying for birds and mammals for clients has some inherent hazards. Encounters with poisonous plants, such as poison ivy, have long been a problem, as are slips and falls. In recent decades, tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme and anaplasmosis, have emerged as serious threats requiring extra precautions, ample doses of tick spray, and even specialized clothing treated with insect repellants like permethrin.

But let’s consider even more serious accidents and deaths that can also occur during wildlife surveys. Wildlife biologists have died on the job from falls, drownings, and traffic accidents. While it is a unique and thrilling experience to fly in aircraft to search for wildlife, aerial surveys are the riskiest and most dangerous things that biologists do in our careers. In 2020, for example, three wildlife consultants (and their pilots) were killed in separate aircraft crashes in Iowa and Illinois while conducting eagle surveys. 

A drone and thermal infrared cameras can help wildlife biologists spot prairie chickens.

In light of the 2020 tragic crashes and others involving wildlife biologists, my experiments with drones and remote cameras have me considering not only how bird and other wildlife surveys can be more effective but also safer. I recently wrote about using a drone and thermal infrared cameras to locate bats in trees and how such remote-sensing technology could be safer and faster than traditional boots-on-the-ground surveys.

To test this drone idea further, I traveled to Kansas to see if drones and thermal infrared cameras could detect prairie-dwelling birds that are cryptic—in other words, hard to see and find because of their camouflaged coloring. Prairie chickens are a mottled brown bird about the size of a loaf of bread, with a distinctive spring mating call.

Not easy to find, prairie chickens nonetheless occupy a unique place in the wide-open prairies, where energy and other development is also occurring. 

While it is a unique and thrilling experience to fly in aircraft to search of wildlife, aerial surveys are the riskiest and most dangerous things that biologists do in our careers.

Finding room for chickens and development

In the mid-America prairies, between the Mississippi River to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west, the wind blows all the time. Not surprising, this makes the prairies attractive to wind-farm development. Solar energy is also expanding in this region (the sun shines a lot, too) and the prairies have seen their share of oil and gas exploration and development. Energy transmission corridors crisscross the prairies.

It is also home to two species of prairie chickens, the greater and lesser. When 19th-century settlers traveled across the prairies, prairie chickens were an abundant food source, with pioneers filling wagons full of the birds. In the 1850s, rail shipments of prairie chickens to eastern cities were measured in tons.

The northern prairies are home to the greater prairie chicken, where wind power is also a growing industry.

Conservation efforts saved prairie chickens from extinction, though the lesser prairie chicken is proposed for listing as threatened and endangered in some parts of their range. While their ranges do overlap, the greater (and larger) prairie chicken largely inhabits Upper Midwest states such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota, while lesser prairie chickens live in the arid states of Kansas, New Mexico, and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.

Where the lesser prairie chickens live, regulations are aimed at preserving their habitat. Wildlife biologists like myself work with clients to survey bird populations and plan mitigation strategies.

Heat signatures of flying birds

For our experiment to find prairie chickens with a drone outfitted with a thermal infrared camera, a colleague and I traveled to a block of mixed agriculture and prairie that was near an existing wind-turbine farm. We knew that prairie chickens inhabited the area, but because the grass was nearly knee-deep, they would be difficult to find. Prairie chickens tend to congregate in “lek” groups, small breeding colonies of birds in the spring.

The heat signatures of prairie chickens appear as small white dots in thermal infrared camera images.

We began by attempting auditory surveys but quickly realized that the sound of nearby turbines made hearing chickens unfeasible. Prairie chickens tend to favor mixed rangeland where the grass is natural short or cropped down by cattle for displaying and taller grass for hiding. When we couldn’t detect the birds booming, we walked through a field of wheat where my colleague flushed a small group of greater prairie chickens.

Now that we knew the chickens’ general location, we launched our drone over the knee-high wheat. We were pleased to discover the heat signatures of the prairie chickens appeared as bright spots on the camera screen and we could follow the flight of a bird with the camera.

Back at our office, we were able to identify more heat signatures of individual birds on our infrared video than we were able to count using our standard transect method.  The experiment proved successful.

Remote sensing as our future

Satellites, drones, and aircraft are revolutionizing how we use remote sensing to monitor remote areas and collect data. We are outfitting ever smaller and less expensive drones with cameras and other monitoring equipment to conduct many types of surveys. Aircraft with LiDAR equipment can measure vegetation down to centimeters, cutting down forest surveys from weeks to a few days.

A Kansas landscape of mixed rangeland where prairie chickens live.

Wildlife surveys using biologists walking transects and counting wildlife haven’t changed appreciably during my career. I believe my experiments using drones to locate federally listed bats and prairie chickens represent the future of wildlife surveys. With our nation’s energy needs increasingly relying on rural areas where the wind and sun power renewable energy, it is important to mitigate impacts on wildlife.

While drones may never completely replace aircraft surveys, I believe drones can be used in tandem with other methods to eliminate the need to conduct surveys from crewed aircraft. Because aircraft crashes are one of the main causes of deaths for wildlife biologists, and no family should have to suffer through that, we can lessen the risks of catastrophic accidents while still collecting the data we need for sound scientific, wildlife surveys.

It is an exciting era to be a wildlife biologist, where technology that makes our work more efficient and safer seems limited only by our imagination.

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