Priority Areas


Grassland birds are declining more so than any other ecological guild of birds in North America (Brennan et al., 2005). These declines have been attributed to agricultural intensification and habitat loss and are exacerbated by global threats such as climate change and increasing energy demands (Rosenburg et al., 2016). Nationwide, survey efforts have been underway to understand population demographics and identify conservation measures for grassland birds and their habitats.

Although many monitoring protocols measure species occupancy, diversity, and abundance, they lack the methods required to demonstrate whether conservation measures improve reproductive success and population sustainability (Smallwood, 2001). These measures can be quantified as measures of nest density, productivity, or nest success within particular grassland habitats (Askins et al., 2007). However, the intensity of the effort required to accurately estimate nesting density and reproduction (Winter et al., 2003) precludes many studies from measuring these factors. Furthermore, nest searching conducted by humans increases the intensity of nest predation (Major, 1990), which could be extremely detrimental to a populations of endangered, threatened and/or sensitive species. Therefore, it is essential to develop alternative methods to survey for nests, methods which enable the measurement of conservation success and without increasing risks to nests. 

In collaboration with James Madison University (JMU xlabs and the Smithsonian’s Movement of Life Initiative, VWL is undertaking a project to develop methods using small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) to accurately locate active bird nests in grassland ecosystems. This sUAS, equipped with thermal and RGB cameras, uses thermal technology to detect nests from a safe distance above grassland habitats during nesting season, and could potentially eliminate the need for human surveyors. A pilot study has been successfully executed and will continue through 2019.

If these drones can demonstrate the precision and accuracy required to identify grassland nests and possess practical utility, in terms of battery longevity and ease of use, then this tool could be used in place of trained surveyors to locate nests of threatened and endangered grassland species. The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus), for instance, has a population size of fewer than 60 individuals and is under severe threat of extinction due to an unexpected disease outbreak. Collaborative efforts aim to locate nests of wild individuals to supplement a captive breeding population as a hedge against extinction (A. Schuman, personal communication 2018). Successful nest searches are a critical component of this effort but it is also important to minimize disturbance of remaining birds and their habitats. Thus, our goal is to refine methods to use sUAS for nest searches in Virginia grasslands to locate nest of native bird species, like Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks, as a model for future use in endangered species and general population monitoring.

VWL's Role:
We facilitated the selection of fields and sites for this project on properties in our area in the VWL landowner network.
Partners and Primary Investigators:
Amy Johnson - Virginia Working Landscapes
Jared Stabach - SCBI, Movement of Life
Sarah Macey - SCBI, Movement of Life
James Barnes, Patrice Ludwig & Kristen Grimshaw - James Madison University
Project Timeline & Status:
Field work began Spring 2018 - Ongoing
This project is supported by the Smithsonian Women's Committee

In the News:

Jul. 20, 2018, All Atwitter About Drones, Conservation News
Did you know: grassland birds incubate their nests around 86 degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough for a drone outfitted with a thermal camera to detect. Virginia Working Landscapes and students at James Madison University are working together to take a 21st-century approach to monitoring a species that is rapidly disappearing. Get the scoop from Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) ecologist Amy Johnson.





Askins, R.A., Chavez-Ramirez, F., Dale, B.C., Haas, C.A., Herkert, J.R., Knopf, F.L., Vickery, P.D., 2007. Conservation of grassland birds in North America: Understanding ecological processes in different regions. Auk 124, 1–46.

Brennan, L.A., Kuvlesky, W.P., Morrison, 2005. Invited paper: north american grassland birds: an unfolding conservation crisis? J. Wildl. Manag. 69, 1–13.<0001:NAGBAU>2.0.CO;2

Israel, M., Reinhard, A., 2017. Detecting nests of lapwing birds with the aid of a small unmanned aerial vehicle with thermal camera, in: Unmanned Aircraft Systems (ICUAS), 2017 International Conference On. IEEE, pp. 1199–1207.

Major, R.E., 1990. The effect of human observers on the intensity of nest predation. Ibis 132, 608–612.

Smallwood, K.S., 2001. Linking habitat restoration to meaningful units of animal demography. Restor. Ecol. 9, 253–261.

Stander, R., Lawson, D., n.d. Doug Howell, Waterfowl Biologist North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Wildlife Management Division Surveys and Research Program.

Winter, M., Hawks, S.E., Shaffer, J.A., Johnson, D.H., 2003. Guidelines for finding nests of passerine birds in tallgrass prairie. USGS North. Prairie Wildl. Res. Cent. 160.

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Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
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