See No Evil

Drones? What drones? New research shows that birds, unlike people, are unfazed by flying machines.

Humans may not be totally comfortable with drones yet, but unmanned aerial machines don’t seem to be ruffling feathers in the bird world. In fact, you can fly a drone within four meters of some birds and they’ll barely even notice, according to a study by seabird ecologist David Grémillet published this week in Biology Letters.

The study—comprised of 204 trials conducted on Greater Flamingos and Common Greenshanks in the wild and Mallards in semi-captivity—found that 80 percent of the time, birds approached by a Cyleone Phantom quadricopter didn’t react at all. The color of the contraption didn’t matter (researchers tested white, black and blue models), nor did speed. The results were especially surprising because all three species—particularly the flamingos and greenshanks—scare easily, the researchers wrote.

There was one understandable exception in the results: Drones flying in from angles of 20 degrees, 30 degrees, or 60 degrees didn’t phase the birds, but dive-bombing in from a 90 degree angle—like a predator might—freaked them out almost every time.  

This is all exciting news for ornithologists, especially those who study bird populations in hard-to-reach places like mountains and wetlands. Grémillet and his team plan to study reactions from other species, like birds of prey—which appear, at least anecdotally, much more curious about drones—as well as corvids and larids.

These experiments may also eventually allow scientists to craft ethical guidelines on drone use with respect to birds, says Grémillet. (For more on the fledgling relationship between birds and drones, check out our primer on the matter.)

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Bald Eagle. Photo: Don Berman/Audubon Photography Awards