Drone technology has improved markedly in recent years, facilitating mass production and much-reduced retail prices (Ahmed 2015). Drones are now being used for recreational photography, surveillance, ecological research and may even be used to deliver packages (Gatteschi et al. 2015). Global sales of drones were estimated at 10 million in 2017 and are projected to rise to 29 million in 2021 (Lin et al. 2017).
Drones are also being increasingly used as a tool to assist in ornithological research, particularly for monitoring breeding birds and breeding bird colonies (Chabot et al. 2015, Hodgson et al. 2016). Using drones to take aerial images is assumed to cause less disturbance than traditional monitoring methods, which might involve a fieldworker entering a breeding bird colony to count nests (Walsh et al. 1995). The counting of large aggregations of wintering birds could also be made easier using drones (Drever et al. 2015).
However, there is a need for more research on how birds respond to drones, particularly those species of waders and wildfowl which gather in large flocks in the non-breeding season. Indeed, using drones in proximity to wildlife creates a new and potentially significant source of anthropogenic disturbance of wild birds (Mulero-Pázmány et al. 2017).
Using a commercially available quadcopter drone, Jarret et al. investigated the extent to which drones are a potential source of disturbance to non-breeding waterbirds. The drone approached waterbird flocks of varying sizes in coastal, freshwater and arable habitats following a standardised protocol. Non-breeding waterbirds were approached with a drone in October 2016 at eight different sites on or near to the Firth of Forth, Scotland.
The research shows that drones can cause flushing responses in non-breeding waterbird flocks. Waterbirds at coastal sites and in arable fields were more likely to respond to drone approach than those at inland freshwater bodies. Furthermore, larger flocks were more likely to respond to drone approach and responded at a greater distance than smaller flocks.
The long-term consequences of increased drone use at important sites for non-breeding waterbirds could depend on the extent to which birds are able to habituate to this novel form of disturbance. Determining whether and to what extent such habituation occurs would require long-term studies, which have yet to be carried out (Mulero-Pázmány et al. 2017). However, repeated drone use at coastal and arable sites with large aggregations of feeding or roosting waterbirds could cause energetically costly flight responses, increased stress, and effective loss of available habitat.
In conclusion, the study found that it may be beneficial to regulate recreational and commercial drone use to minimise potential disturbance effects.
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