How Drones Scare Wildlife Away And Damage Critical Habitats

You’ve seen these breathtaking images before; following herds of migrating ungulates as they cross the Midwestern pains, sneaking up on bear families as they hunt for food and raise their young, or headlong into a massive murmuration of birds flying south for the winter.

In some cases, drone photography has brought us closer to wildlife than many could ever imagine. The reality is, many of these animals don’t share the same experience, and could be running for their lives.

Not all animals are comfortable around drones.
Not all animals are comfortable around drones.

As Margarita Mulero Pazmany, Lecturer in UAV Applications at Liverpool John Moores University, writes for The Conversation, “When animals come into contact with drones, they may experience physiological changes such as an increased heart rate, behavioral responses such as running or flying away, or even suffer stress that could disrupt their reproductive process. If they decide to avoid specific areas as a result of frequent disturbing drone encounters, this could fragment and ultimately damage the whole population.”

According to National Geographic, a recent study on black bears in Minnesota measured bears’ heart rates by sensors implanted in their bodies. The sensors recorded significant spikes in blood pressure when a bear was surprised by the drone. Big boosts occurred in a female bear who had recently gone into her den to hibernate, and two others who had to chase their young, frightened by the drone, into another bear’s home range.

An increase in drone usage has led to an increase in run-ins with wildlife.
An increase in drone usage has led to an increase in run-ins with wildlife.

In June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some 3,000 elegant tern eggs were abandoned at a Southern California nesting island after a drone crashed and scared off the birds. The drones were flown illegally over the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach in May and one of them went down in the wetlands, The Orange County Register reports.

Fearing an attack from a predator, several thousand terns abandoned their ground nests. Now, during the month when the white birds would be overseeing the eggs as they begin to hatch, the sand is littered with egg shells. It’s one of the largest-scale abandonment of eggs ever.

Drone accidents can seriously injure birds.
Drone accidents can seriously injure birds.

“It’s ironic,” Peter Knapp, who’s been monitoring endangered and threatened birds at the reserve for more than 20 years, told the outlet. “Drone owners are attracted by the nesting colonies of birds, and then their actions destroy it.”

As The Spruce reports, Drone use can threaten avian species in a number of ways:

  1. Disrupting Nests: The noise and unfamiliar presence of a drone could drive adult birds away. This can lead to neglect or abandonment of vulnerable eggs and chicks.
  2. Provoking Attacks: If drones are perceived to be a threat, some birds may leave their nest and attack the device instead of caring for their hatchlings, foraging or otherwise tending to their own survival needs.
  3. Scattering Leks: Birds that congregate on leks for courtship displays can be frightened or scared off by drones. if the lek is not revisited, it may take generations for birds to find and begin using another suitable site with the same success.
  4. Interrupting Feeding: Drones may prompt birds to abandon a good food source and for less abundant or nutritious resources. This can lead to malnourished birds with fewer healthy chicks.
  5. Midair Collisions: Collisions with drones can lead to severe injuries.

“Many people just want exciting video footage, and don’t think about how it may be affecting animals,” Gustavo Lozada, technology manager for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, tells Nature. “There was a recent video that showed an eagle attacking a drone. And a lot of the social media reaction made it like the eagle defeated the drone. That eagle was probably hurt bad or even killed by that encounter. I see an eagle anywhere in the vicinity, the drone is coming down, even if it means I lose data.”

For Lozada, the drone is only of value to research and conservation if the drone captures natural behaviors of wildlife. That’s what the footage here shows, and what ultimately will be most useful for researchers.

Help us minimize the damage drones present to wildlife.
Help us minimize the damage drones present to wildlife.

“Scientists don’t need to see how wildlife run from humans,” he says. “They know that. We need to see how they behave, how they move around on a landscape when they are not scared. Drones can do that. They can provide the opportunity to observe behavior we couldn’t see any other way. But only if we use them the right way.”

The usage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over protected nature preserves has caused enough injury and destruction already. This type of ecological disruption can wreak havoc on native and migratory species. Click below and demand the Federal Aviation Administration strengthen the regulations on drone usage and ban the operations of drones in federally protected wildlife preserves outside of special permission for research or the benefit of the animals within.

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