A Bird’s Eye View: Using Drones to Assist with Avian Research

While research involving nest searching is important to elucidate estimates of reproductive success and population sustainability, the intensity of effort required to accurately estimate nesting density and reproduction impedes many studies from measuring these factors. 

In collaboration with James Madison University (JMU xlabs https://jmuxlabs.org/about/) and the Smithsonian’s Movement of Life Initiative, VWL is undertaking a project to develop methods using small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), or drones, to accurately locate active bird nests in grassland ecosystems. These drones, equipped with thermal and RGB cameras, use 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 2020. The goals of this study are to 1) validate the precision of nest searching in working grasslands using drones; 2) identify how vegetation density/structure impacts sUAS survey accuracy; and 3) compare behavioral responses of birds to nest searches conducted by sUAS vs. trained surveyors.

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.

Primary Investigators:
Amy Johnson – Virginia Working Landscapes
Jared Stabach – Smithsonian’s Movement of Life Initiative

Project Timeline & Status:
Field work began Spring 2018 – Ongoing

This project is supported by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee

All Atwitter About Drones


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VWL is supported 100% by grants and donations and our work is made possible by the generous contributions from our community.

The Smithsonian Institution is a 501(c)(3). All contributions are tax-deductible.


Virginia Working Landscapes
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
1500 Remount Road, MRC 5537
Front Royal, Virginia 22630