Drones and wildlife – working to co-exist


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Researchers have reviewed evidence for wildlife disturbance and current drone policies and found that the law is playing catch-up with emerging technology.
Pip Wallace, CC BY-ND

Pip Wallace, University of Waikato; Iain White, University of Waikato, and Ross Martin, University of Waikato

The drone market is booming and it is changing the way we use airspace, with some unforeseen consequences.

The uptake of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) has been swift. But despite their obvious benefits, concerns are growing about impacts on wildlife.

In our research we investigate whether regulation is keeping pace with the speed of technological change. We argue that it doesn’t, and we suggest that threatened species might need extra protection to ensure they aren’t harmed by drones.

RPA management

Drones are useful tools for conservation biologists. They allow them to survey inaccessible terrain and assist with many challenging tasks, from seeding forests to collecting whale snot.

But researchers are also discovering that RPAs have negative impacts on wildlife, ranging from temporary disturbances to fatal collisions.

Disturbance from vehicles and other human activity are known to affect wildlife, but with the speed that drones have entered widespread use, their effects are only just starting to be studied.

So far, the regulatory response has focused squarely on risks to human health, safety and privacy, with wildlife impacts only rarely taken into account, and even then usually in a limited way.


Read more: The age of drones has arrived quicker than the laws that govern them


It is not uncommon for regulatory gaps to arise when new technology is introduced. The rapid growth of drone technology raises a series of questions for environmental law and management.

We have reviewed evidence for wildlife disturbance and current drone policies and found that the law is playing catch-up with emerging technology.

Impacts on wildlife range from disturbance to fatal collisions.
Pip Wallace, CC BY-ND

This is particularly important in New Zealand, where many threatened species live outside protected reserves. Coastal areas are of particular concern. They provide habitat for numerous threatened and migrating species but also experience high rates of urban development and recreational activity. Different species also respond very differently to the invasion of their airspace.

Where “flying for fun” and pizza delivery by drone combine with insufficient control, there is potential for unanticipated consequences to wildlife.

RPA and red tape

When competing interests collide, regulation requires particular care. Any rules on RPAs need to cater for a wide range of users, with varying skills and purposes, and enable beneficial applications while protecting wildlife.

There are strong social and economic drivers for the removal of red tape. Australia and the United States have introduced permissive regimes for lower-risk use, including recreational activity. In New Zealand, RPAs are considered as aircraft and controlled by civil aviation legislation.


Read more: New drone rules: with more eyes in the sky, expect less privacy


Wildlife disturbance, or other impacts on the environment, are not specifically mentioned in these rules and control options depend on existing wildlife law.

The lack of consideration of wildlife impacts in civil aviation rules creates a gap, which is accompanied by an absence of policy guidance. As a consequence, the default position for limiting RPA operations comes from the general requirement for property owner consent.

RPA and spatial controls

RPA operators wanting to fly over conservation land have to get a permit from the Department of Conservation, which has recognised wildlife disturbance as a potential issue.

On other public land, we found that local authorities take a patchy and inconsistent approach to RPA activity, with limited consideration of effects on wildlife. On private land, efforts to control impacts to wildlife depend on the knowledge of property owners.

Protection of wildlife from RPA impacts is further confounded by limitations of legislation that governs the protection of wildlife and resource use and development. The Wildlife Act 1953 needs updating to provide more effective control of disturbance effects to species.

Marine mammals get some protection from aircraft disturbance under species-specific legislation. Other than that, aircraft are exempt from regulation under the Resource Management Act, which only requires noise control for airports. As a result, tools normally used to control spatial impacts, such as protective zoning, setbacks and buffers for habitat and species are not available.

This makes sense for aircraft flying at 8,000m or more, but drones use space differently, are controlled locally, and generate local effects. It is also clear that equipment choices and methods of RPA operation can reduce risks to wildlife.

Keeping drones out of sensitive spaces

Dunedin City Council in New Zealand recently approved a bylaw banning drones from ecologically sensitive areas. This is a good start but we think a more consistent and universal approach is required to protect threatened species.

As a starter, all RPA operations should be guided by specific policy and made available on civil aviation websites, addressing impacts to wildlife and RPA methods of operation. In addition, we advocate for research into regulatory measures requiring, where appropriate, distance setbacks of RPA operations from threatened and at risk species.

Distance setbacks are already used in the protection of marine mammals from people, aircraft and other sources of disturbance. Setbacks benefit species by acting as a mobile shield in contrast to a fixed area protection.

The ConversationCongestion of space is a condition of modern life, and the forecast exponential growth of RPA in the environment indicates that space will become even more contested in future, both in the air and on the ground. We argue that stronger measures that recognise the potential impacts on wildlife, how this may differ from species to species, and how this may be concentrated in certain locations, are required to deliver better protection for threatened species.

Pip Wallace, Senior lecturer in Environmental Planning, University of Waikato; Iain White, Professor of Environmental Planning, University of Waikato, and Ross Martin, Doctoral Candidate (Coastal Ecology), University of Waikato

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The good news and bad news about the rare birds of Papua New Guinea


Robert Davis, Edith Cowan University

The rainforests of Papua New Guinea are home to one of the richest bird populations in the world. But many are threatened by logging and palm oil farming.

Now, a team of researchers led by Edith Cowan University have surveyed the PNG island of New Britain to see how the bird population is faring.

The good news: several bird species, like the Blue-eyed Cockatoo, were found to be doing better than before.

The bad news: the researchers saw only a few New Britain Kingfishers, and some vulnerable species, like the New Britain Bronzewing, Golden Masked-owl and Bismarck Thicketbird, were not seen at all.

The ConversationTheir results, recently published in the journal Bird Conservation International, help to inform the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Robert Davis, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Biology, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

It isn’t easy being blue – the cost of colour in fairy wrens



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New research shows that fairy-wrens become more cautious as they change colour.
Niki Teunissen, Author provided

Alexandra McQueen, Monash University and Anne Peters, Monash University

Male superb fairy-wrens change colour every year, from dull brown to bright blue. But being blue may be risky if you are a tiny bird that is easily spotted by predators.

Published today, our new study found that male fairy-wrens adjust their risk-taking behaviour after undergoing colour change, becoming more cautious while brightly coloured.

Superb fairy wrens help scientists learn about the evolutionary costs of being beautiful.

Colour and risk

For many males, having beautiful colours is important for attracting choosy females. Researchers think attractive colours come with a cost, so that only the highest quality males can afford to display them. This may be helpful to females looking to select the best mate.

One possible cost of bright colours is increased predation risk, as bright animals are easily seen in their natural habitat. This cost can be dramatic (i.e. being eaten) but may more often involve changes in behaviour to mitigate risk, such as spending more time scanning for predators and being more responsive to perceived threats. Such behaviours are costly because they reduce the time available for foraging and are energetically expensive.

Male superb fairy wren.
Kaspar Delhey, Author provided

A relationship between bright colours, predation risk and cautious behaviour may seem intuitive; however this is difficult to test. This is because different coloured animals may also differ in their age, size, escape tactics and personality, which can influence both their behaviour and actual predation risk.

To address this, we tested whether individuals adjust their response to risk according to changes in their plumage colour.

Fairy-wren antics

Superb fairy-wrens are small, charismatic songbirds. They live in groups with a dominant male and female and, often, several younger males.

These birds are vulnerable to predators such as kookaburras, butcherbirds, currawongs and goshawks. When a group member spots a predator, it gives an alarm call to warn the others. In response, other group members may race for cover, or ignore the alarm and continue about their business.

Male fairy-wrens change colour by replacing dull brown feathers with bright blue, black and indigo ones prior to breeding, turning brown again after the breeding season is complete. Individuals change colour at different times of the year, ranging from the Australian autumn (March-April) to late spring (October).

A male superb fairy-wren in brown plumage (left) and bright blue-and-back plumage (right)
Niki Teunissen and Kaspar Delhey, Author provided

Although female fairy-wrens have a stable, social partner, when egg-laying time comes, they briefly leave their territory under the cover of darkness and “visit” the male who became blue earliest in the year. Many of the females in the surrounding area prefer the same male, who may father around 70% of the offspring in the neighbourhood. These attractive males are blue for longest (remaining blue for 10-12 months of the year) and so may face the greatest risk of predation.

Tracking fairy-wrens

We gave fairy-wrens different coloured leg bands, allowing us to follow the same individuals over time.

Fairy-wren ‘YOB’ with coloured leg bands (Yellow-Orange-Blue)
Alexandra McQueen, Author provided

We compared the behaviour of the same males while they were brown and blue, as well as males that remained brown or blue throughout the study. This meant we could test for the effect of colour on responses to perceived risk while accounting for individual differences and possible seasonal changes in behaviour.

We estimated cautiousness in the birds by testing their response to alarm calls. This involved sneaking up on unsuspecting fairy-wrens in their natural habitat and broadcasting fairy-wren alarm calls from portable speakers.

We used two types of alarms: a low-danger alarm, which warns of a moderate threat, such as a predator that is far away, and a high-danger alarm, which signals an immediate threat.

Low-danger superb fairy-wren alarm call.
Robert Magrath48 KB (download)

High-danger superb fairy-wren alarm call.
Robert Magrath73.1 KB (download)

Costs of being blue

Responses to the low-danger alarm included fleeing for cover, an intermediate response (such as ducking or looking skywards) and no response, when the alarm was ignored. Fairy-wrens fled immediately after hearing the high-danger alarm, but differed in the time taken to return to the open.

We found that fairy-wrens were more cautious while blue; they fled more often after hearing low-danger alarms and took longer to emerge from hiding after fleeing in response to high-danger alarms. Blue fairy-wrens also spent more time scanning their surroundings and less time foraging compared to brown wrens.

This suggests that fairy-wrens perceive themselves to be at a higher risk of predation while bright blue and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Fairy-wrens are more likely to flee in response to alarms calls while in blue plumage.
Kaspar Delhey, Author provided

Blue decoys?

Intriguingly, fairy-wrens also adjusted their behaviour according to the colour of other wrens in the group. When a blue male was nearby, wrens were less responsive to alarm calls and devoted less time to keeping a look-out.

Perhaps this is because fairy-wrens view blue group members as colourful decoys in the event of an attack. This could occur if predators are biased towards attacking the most conspicuous animal, which reduces the predation risk for surrounding individuals. Brown wrens could also be taking advantage of the greater time blue males spend scanning, allowing them to lower their guard.

Being blue for longest gives males the best chance of attracting females, but they need to be extra careful lest they get eaten before it comes to that.


The ConversationCoauthors on this research are Annalise Naimo, Niki Teunissen, Robert Magrath and Kaspar Delhey.

Alexandra McQueen, PhD Candidate in Behavioural Ecology, Monash University and Anne Peters, Associate Professor , Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Contested spaces: saving nature when our beaches have gone to the dogs



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Early in the morning and late in the evening is when shorebirds escape disturbance on the beaches on which their survival depends.
Arnuchulo

Madeleine Stigner, The University of Queensland; Kiran Dhanjal-Adams, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland

This is the ninth article in our Contested Spaces series. These pieces look at the conflicting uses, expectations and norms that people bring to public spaces, the clashes that result and how we can resolve these. The Conversation


There’s no doubt about it, Australians love the beach. And why not? Being outdoors makes us happy, and all beaches are public places in Australia.

Head to a beach like Bondi on Christmas Day and you’ll share that space with more than 40,000 people. But we aren’t just jostling with each other for coveted beach space. Scuttling, waddling, hopping or flying away from beachgoers all around Australia are crabs, shorebirds, baby turtles, crocodiles, fairy penguins and even dingoes.

Beaches are home to an incredible array of animals, and sharing this busy space with people is critical to their survival. But, if we find it hard to share our beaches with each other, how can we possibly find space for nature on our beaches?

Beach birds

Here’s a classic example of how hard it is to share our beaches with nature. Head to a busy beach at dawn, before the crowds arrive, and you will most likely see a number of small birds darting about.

You may recognise them from the short movie Piper – they are shorebirds. As the day progresses, swimmers, kite surfers, dog walkers, horse riders, 4x4s and children descend upon the beach en masse, unwittingly disturbing the shorebirds.

We share beaches with an extraordinary array of life, including many shorebirds.

Unlike seabirds, shorebirds do not spend their life at sea. Instead, they specialise on the beach: foraging for their invertebrate prey, avoiding waves, or resting.

However, shorebird numbers in Australia are declining very rapidly. Several species are officially listed as nationally threatened, such as the critically endangered Eastern Curlew.

There are few places you can let your dog run for as long and as far as it pleases, which is one of the reasons beaches appeal to dog owners. But this disturbance results in heavy costs to the birds as they expend energy taking flight and cannot return to favourable feeding areas. Repeated disturbance can cause temporary or permanent abandonment of suitable habitat.

The world’s largest shorebirds, Eastern Curlews are critically endangered – and Australia is home to about 75% of them over summer.
Donald Hobern/flickr, CC BY

The fascinating thing about many of these shorebirds is that they are migratory. Beachgoers in Korea, China, Indonesia or New Zealand could observe the same individual bird that we have seen in Australia.

Yet these journeys come at a cost. Shorebirds must undertake gruelling flights of up to 16,000 kilometres twice a year to get from their breeding grounds in Siberia and Alaska to their feeding grounds in Australia and New Zealand. In their pursuit of an endless summer, they arrive in Australia severely weakened by their travels. They must almost double their body weight before they can migrate again.

And these birds must contend with significant daily disruption on their feeding grounds. A recent study in Queensland found an average of 174 people and 72 dogs were present at any one time on the foreshore of Moreton Bay, along Brisbane’s coastline. And 84% of dogs were off the leash – an off-leash dog was sighted every 700 metres – in potential contravention of regulations on dog control.

Managing the menagerie

One conservation approach is to set up nature reserves. This involves trying to keep people out of large areas of the coastal zone to provide a home for nature. Yet this rarely works in practice on beaches, where there are so many overlapping jurisdictions (for example, councils often don’t control the lower areas of the intertidal zone) that protection is rarely joined up.

The beach-nesting Hooded Plover is unique to Australia where it is listed as vulnerable (and critically endangered in NSW).
Francesco Veronesi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Benjamint444/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

However, our work at the University of Queensland shows we don’t need conservation reserves in which people are kept out. Quite the reverse. We should be much bolder in opening up areas that are specifically designated as dog off-leash zones, in places where demand for recreation is high.

In the case of Moreton Bay, 97% of foraging migratory shorebirds could be protected from disturbance simply by designating five areas as off-leash recreation zones. Currently, dogs must be kept under close control throughout the intertidal areas of Moreton Bay.

By zoning our beaches carefully, the science tells us that the most intense recreational activities can be located away from critical areas for nature. And there’s no reason why this logic couldn’t be extended to creating peaceful zones for beach users who prefer a quiet day out.

By approaching the problem scientifically, we can meet recreational demand as well as protect nature. Proper enforcement of the boundaries between zones is needed. Such enforcement is effective when carried out in the right places at the right time.

We believe that keeping people and their dogs off beaches to protect nature is neither desirable nor effective. It sends totally the wrong message – successful conservation is about living alongside nature, not separating ourselves from it.

Conservationists and recreationists should be natural allies, both working to safeguard our beautiful coasts. The key is to find ways that people and nature can co-exist on beaches.


You can find other pieces published in the series here.

Madeleine Stigner, Research assistant, The University of Queensland; Kiran Dhanjal-Adams, Research Associate Ecological Modeller, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and Richard Fuller, Associate Professor in Biodiversity and Conservation, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Birdbath, food or water? How to attract your favourite birds to your garden


Grainne Cleary, Deakin University

This summer, when a rainbow lorikeet or kookaburra comes to visit your home, what will you do? Will you offer them a slice of apple, or simply watch until they take flight?

It brings many people joy to provide food and water for birds, to encourage them to stay a while and be given the chance to observe them more closely. But some people are reluctant to interact with birds in this way because they’re worried it might damage the birds’ health.

In contrast with other countries, little research has been done on the effects of feeding birds in Australia. As a result, there are no established guidelines around how to feed and provide water for local birds.

Kookaburra having a snack.
Photo supplied by Wanda Optland, provided by author.

That’s why we ran the Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study. We asked nearly 3,000 people to monitor the birds that visited their feeding areas and birdbaths. We wanted to know if there was a difference in the species that visited different types of gardens.

We examined the numbers and types of birds visiting:

  • birdbaths where no food was provided
  • birdbaths where food was provided
  • bird-feeders where birdbaths were provided
  • places where only food was provided.

The early results from the winter stage of the Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study suggest that if you provide food and water, you will get more birds in your garden. But the species you attract will depend on what exactly your garden has to offer.

Common bronzewings like to eat seeds.
Glenn Pure, CC BY-NC
Providing different combinations of food and water will attract different species.

Granivores

Granivores are seed-eating birds. They include species such as parrots, crested pigeons, sulphur-crested cockatoos, crimson rosellas and galahs.

Gang gang cockatoos refresh themselves in a garden.
Glenn Pure

We noticed a spike in the number of granivores in gardens where both food and birdbaths were provided. But when food was on offer, fewer granivores chose to use the birdbath. We don’t yet know exactly why this is, but it could be because these seed-eaters need less water, or they can get it more easily from other sources than they can food.

Also, most of the bird food sold in shops is seed-based. People who buy these products will naturally attract more seed-eating birds to their garden.

We were, however, surprised to see crested pigeons visiting gardens where food was provided. These birds are only recent urban arrivals, and were previously restricted to semi-arid environments as opposed to the more urban areas where most of our citizen scientists lived. But crested pigeons are very adaptable and now compete fiercely for food and territory with the introduced spotted dove in some Australian gardens.

Many people derive great joy from feeding Australian birds.

Nectarivores

“Small” nectarivores are nectar-eating birds that weigh less than 20 grams. The main birds in this group are New Holland honeyeaters, eastern spinebills and Lewin’s honeyeaters.

The early results of our study suggest small nectarivores prefer gardens with birdbaths more than their granivore and insectivore friends. In fact, it seems that these small nectarivores like birdbaths so much, they will choose birdbaths over food when both are provided.

“Large” nectarivores are nectar-eating birds that weigh more than 20 grams. These species including noisy miners, rainbow lorikeets and red wattlebirds – seem to prioritise food over birdbaths. This may be because they’re looking for a source of protein that they can’t easily find in their natural environment.

Rainbow lorikeets seem to prioritise food over birdbaths.
Photo supplied by Wanda Optland, provided by author.

Honeyeaters – such as Lewin’s honeyeaters, blue-faced honeyeaters and noisy miners – will forage on nectar but will eat insects as well. They switch from one to the other, but once they have found their meal they will defend it vigorously from other birds.

Honeyeaters will forage on nectar but will consume invertebrates as well.
Photo by Wanda Optland, supplied by author.

Insectivores

Insectivores feed on insects, worms, and other invertebrates. Some insectivore species include superb fairy-wrens, willie wagtails and grey fantails.

Insectivores are most attracted to gardens where both food and water are provided. While superb fairy-wrens were frequently found in gardens where food was provided, willie wagtails and grey fantails preferred to visit gardens where only water is provided.

The striated thornbill feeds mainly on insects.
Glenn Pure, CC BY-NC

Many people have told me how confident fairy-wrens and willie wagtails can become around houses and gardens. These tiny birds can be bold and aggressive, and can work together to get what they want. A mum and dad fairy-wrens will conscript their older children into looking after younger ones – and siblings who refuse to help find food and defend territory may even be kicked out of the family. So these tough breeds have a competitive advantage in their new urban environments, and aren’t afraid to mix with or even chase off bigger birds.

Fairy wrens can become surprisingly bold around gardens and houses.
Photo by Wanda Optland, supplied by author.
Bolder than they look – a fairy wren eats from a citizen scientist’s hand.
Peter Brazier

You may be wondering exactly what type of seed to put out to attract which granivore, or which meat attracts a carnivore like a Kookaburra. I’m afraid we can’t yet say for sure, as we are yet to analyse the data on this question. Watch this space.

We don’t yet know exactly what offering will attract which bird.
Janette and Ron Ford

Could birds become reliant on humans for food?

Many people worry that birds will become reliant on humans to provide food for them. But this mightn’t be as big a concern as we once though.

The birds turning up at feeding areas and birdbaths are species that are highly adaptable. Many Australian birds live long lives, and relatively large brains when compared to their European counterparts. Some experts have argued that some Australian birds have evolved a larger brain to cope with feast and famine conditions in the Australian environment.

White browed scrubwrens feed mostly on insects.
Glenn Pure, CC BY-NC

Many Australian bird species can switch easily between estates and gardens in one area, be semi-nomadic, fully nomadic or seasonally migratory. This ability to adapt and switch between diets makes Australian bird species very resourceful, innovative and adaptable.

Of course, Australia also has birds that have highly specialised diets or habitats, and they’re the ones usually most threatened or limited to one territory – birds like the regent honeyeater or ground parrot. In this study, we’re concentrating on birds that are adapting to urban areas and turning up at birdbaths and feeding areas in gardens.

A crested pigeon tucks in.
Brad Walker

Building our knowledge of bird feeding behaviour

We plan to develop guidelines around providing food and water for birds in a way that has the highest conservation value for our feathered friends. But before we can do that, we need more data from you.

So please take part in the summer stage of the study and pass the word around to others who may wish to be involved.

The summer survey will run for four weeks, beginning on January 30 2017. Visit feedingbirds.org.auto download the complete report on our early findings or to register to take part in our summer study.

Different species may congregate at a feeding spot.
Brad Walker

The Conversation

Grainne Cleary, Researcher, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.