‘They’re territorial’: can birds and drones coexist?

‘They’re territorial’: can birds and drones coexist?

Drone delivery company Wing has temporarily suspended deliveries to the Canberra suburb of Harrison after a nesting raven swooped a drone delivering coffee.

It has ignited an interesting dichotomy: if such deliveries are the carbon-friendly future, can birds and drones coexist, or should action be taken to mitigate any ill-effects of drones on wildlife?

Drones delivering hot coffee? Yes. Wing delivers hot coffee, groceries, medicine and hardware to locked-down homes in Canberra and non-locked-down ones in Logan, Queensland.

It plans to expand post-lockdown, marketing itself as a zero-emission, low energy, environmentally-friendly, fast and safe method of delivery, which will take cars off the road.

“Hot food and coffee are popular because we fly so fast,” Jesse Suskin, head of public policy at Wing, says. He talks up their pro-environmental, low energy credentials.

“If you order pasta via our app, it takes more energy to cook the pasta than deliver it.”

But now Wing, which started three years ago and is doing a delivery every minute in Canberra and one every 30 seconds in Logan, has now hit hot water itself.

Raven attack

Wing hires an ornithological expert who has advised them to pause deliveries in that area while mating / swooping season occurs.

“It’s rare we see birds attack drones, but this year that behaviour seemed slightly more aggressive than we’d seen previously” Suskin says.

But Mike Weston says ravens pursue birds of prey as a threat year-round. It’s possible that’s what triggered this raven.

Whenever a bird attacks a drone, the drone mostly comes off second best
Birdlife Australia’s Sean Dooley

The associate professor of wildlife conservation at Deakin University says birds attacking drones is also not rare.

“Deakin is about to release a study of 275 drone pilots showing that almost 20% reported physical contact between their drone and a bird. So it’s a problem” he says.

Birdlife Australia’s Sean Dooley says it’s hard to be sure if birds such as this raven mistake drones for other birds, or simply recognise them as a threat: “They’re territorial” he says. And they’re not averse to attacking larger birds: “I’ve seen poor old pelicans or herons being hammered by ravens or magpies. This behaviour is far more pronounced in nesting season, but does happen outside of it too,” he says.

Dooley says he hasn’t seen ravens attack drones before, but has seen such behaviour in wedge tailed eagles, Australia’s largest bird of prey. In Holland, eagles have been trained to take down illegal drones.

It’s not just about conserving wildlife; it’s also about drone delivery companies having a sustainable business model without losing too many drones.

“Whenever a bird attacks a drone, the drone mostly comes off second best,” Dooley says.

This is certainly corroborated by Guardian Australia’s photographer Mike Bowers, whose photographic drones have been attacked three times.

“It was an expensive exercise – drones zero, birds three!” Bowers says, adding he’s relieved the birds weren’t injured.

“The raptors seem very determined – and they’re fast” he says. “They use their talons to strike and break the propellers, and the drone falls out of the sky and breaks into a million pieces,” he says.

Drones are great for environmentalists

Birdlife expert Sean Dooley is keen to stress what a boon drones are for conservationists.

“When properly used, they’re great to accurately count colonies of endangered birds in inaccessible areas,” he says.

He says more research is being undertaken to ascertain the safest distance without spooking off nests of endangered seabirds – the results of which will prove instructive for drone delivery services.

“It’s roosting coastal birds we need to be mindful of,” Dooley says. “Drones can spook them, causing them to fly off from the safe roost, expend lots of energy and expose chicks to predators like gulls,” he says, calling for more regulation around such areas.

Prof Weston says the effects of drones go beyond territorial attacks and disturbing those nesting: “Their less dramatic but still significant effects could cause birds to stop foraging and disrupt their breeding patterns,” he says, adding further research will highlight the extent of such impacts.

He says a centralised recording of all wildlife and drone interactions will help inform solutions: “We currently mainly rely on videos on the internet,” he says.

While waiting for more comprehensive research, RSPCA Australia suggests drone use should be minimised, citing potential stress induced by the sound/visual stimulus of the drone.

“Codes of practice until then could include: low noise production and size drones, launching and landing at least 100m from animals and avoiding moving directly towards animals as it may mimic a predator’s behaviour,” says Dr Di Evans, senior scientific officer, RSPCA Australia.

Weston calls for standardised protocols, agreed no-fly zones and better training for drone operators on what to do when an aggressive encounter happens. “There might also be technological solutions such as automatic modification of flight paths and flights using sensors,” he says.

Photographer Mike Bowers says this is all part of living in Australia.

“You live alongside a variety of wildlife – you have to accept raptors live in our skies just like surfers have to accept there are sharks in our seas.”

This article by Gary Nunn was first published by The Guardian on 30 September 2021. Lead Image: Research is being undertaken to ascertain the safest distance for a drone without spooking off nests of endangered seabirds. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock.

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