Can machines replace humans?Article authored by Deborah Buehler It’s a thought-provoking question. Especially at moment when machines – and algorithms more broadly – are increasingly impacting our lives1. However, one might understandably say that further clarification is needed. What type of machines? What task is to be done? In this issue of Wader Study, Roberto Valle and Francesco Scarton highlight the nuanced way this question could be answered2. Of course, they don’t ask whether machines can replace humans, exactly. They just want a safe and accurate way to count nesting shorebirds and they wonder if machines might help. In this case, the machines are unmanned aerial systems, also known as ‘drones’, a name that may be an onomatopoeia for the mosquito-like noise they make. Drone technology can be useful as well as annoying. Many fields of study have used drones from military intelligence, to civil engineering, to archaeology, to mining; and wildlife biology is no exception3. If you had to count something, in inhospitable territory, wouldn’t you send in the drones? Valle and Scarton needed to count breeding pairs of their study species, Black-winged Stilts Himantopus himantopus and Pied Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta. These birds make nests in difficult-to-reach saltmarshes in the Lagoon of Venice, a 55,000 ha coastal wetland in northeastern Italy. The lagoon is the largest in the Mediterranean Sea and the area is full of soft mud and tidal channels, both of which are easier to fly a drone over than to walk on. [caption id="attachment_14742" align="alignnone" width="960"] Saltmarshes in the Lagoon of Venice in northeastern Italy (photo: Roberto Valle)[/caption] However, before sending in the drones, Valle and Scarton needed to know that the technology could accurately and safely count the birds. Therefore, they compared the safety and effectiveness of drone-conducted counts with traditional ground-based counts. The researchers conducted fieldwork from mid-April to mid-June during the 2017 and 2018 breeding seasons. Surveys were restricted to days with windspeeds less than 10 km/h and no clouds because, although human researchers often work in wind and rain, drones require better weather. Drone and ground surveys took place at 52 colonies over the two years, always either in the morning from 8 am to 10 am or in the afternoon from 4 pm to 6 pm to avoid extreme temperatures. The safety of the birds was top priority, especially since drones are a newer technology. Therefore, the researchers launched drones from sites more than 150 m from the study colony and then flew at a height of 70m until they were directly above the centre of the colony. This ensured that the drone wouldn’t disturb the birds before the survey had started. Much like humans, birds don’t like it when things plummet vertically towards them. For this reason, the researchers used the “lawn mower” pattern, systematically flying back and forth, to lower the drones when it was time to begin the survey. Once the drone was lowered to about 30m, the pilot could see the nests, but couldn’t be certain whether there was a bird present at the nest. Thus, the researchers lowered the drone a further 10 to 20 m. At this height, they flew above the nests at a speed of 15 to 30 km per hour, causing any birds to flush (fly away) from their nests. Disturbing the birds was necessary to record reactions to the drone. These reactions were coded in the field or later from videos as follows: birds sitting on or flushing from a nest were considered a breeding pair, birds strongly reacting to the drone by chasing it were considered probable breeders, even if far from a nest, and the researchers counted one pair for every two birds behaving this way. During each drone flight, a researcher observed the colony from approximately 150 m to check whether nests or young were in danger of predation after the adults were flushed from the nests. Thirty minutes later the researchers approached the colony on foot for the ground survey. During a ground survey, two researchers walked abreast about 10 m apart systematically searching for nests. Every nest with eggs or chicks was recorded as ‘confirmed breeding’. Ground surveys were always done after drone surveys even though the researchers admit that this is a limitation in terms of the comparison of methods. A completely fair comparison would have randomized the order of the surveys. However, in this study, randomization was intentionally traded for the ability to use the ground survey as a safety check on the preceding drone survey. The researchers found no evidence that drone surveys cause undue disturbance to birds. Birds were not scared permanently from their nests, nor were the nests exposed to predators. In fact, the drones caused less disturbance to the birds than humans on the ground. Drone surveys also took less researcher time, even accounting for post-processing work in the lab after drone surveys. Drones were therefore safe and efficient, but were they accurate? Unfortunately, no. Valle and Scarton found that fewer breeding pairs were identified during drone flights than ground counts. This undercounting was substantial, with 18.1% of Black-winged Stilt pairs and 20.5% of Pied Avocet pairs missed during the drone surveys. Furthermore, drone surveys had less sensitivity (true breeding pairs identified as positive), specificity (true non-breeders identified as negative), and accuracy (correctly identified birds divided by the total birds seen). This study shows that there are pros and cons to using drones when surveying nesting shorebirds. Drones did not detect as many nests as ground surveys and falsely identified some nests; however, the drone surveys caused less disturbance to the birds. These results raise the question of whether accuracy could be improved with improved drone technology or whether drones could be useful under some, if not all, circumstances? Valle and Scarton admit that a limitation of their study was the type of drone used. It was a simple model with a standard camera. A larger drone with a higher quality camera might have provided better images and allowed the researchers to distinguish incubating birds from a higher altitude without flushing them from nests. This might improve accuracy while further decreasing disturbance to the birds, but this remains to be tested. The researchers also found that the size and composition of the breeding colony mattered. In large, mixed colonies, birds flushed when the drone was still quite far away in response to alarm calls from only a few species. For example, the presence of Eurasian Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus made this worse because they are very aggressive towards drones. This contributed to undercounting because it was more difficult to identify breeding pairs when the adults were no longer at their nests. Furthermore, if nesting birds were flushed out of sight of the drone pilot, they weren’t counted. The opposite was also a problem, if the same bird repeatedly chased the drone, within the line of sight, it could be double counted. [caption id="attachment_14744" align="aligncenter" width="960"] Eurasian Oystercatcher reacting to drone. (photo: Roberto Valle)[/caption] Knowing that large, multi-species colonies contributed to errors in the drone surveys, the authors asked whether drones might be most useful for smaller colonies of mainly silts and avocets. This was indeed the case. The authors found that both the sensitivity and specificity of the drone surveys were increased in small colonies and that in these circumstances there was nearly perfect agreement between the drone and ground survey methods. So, can machines replace humans? It's a question best answered with context taken into account. In this study, the machines are drones and the task is counting breeding shorebirds. The authors recommend the use of drones only in small colonies without species, like Eurasian Oystercatchers, that react more strongly to drones. In these circumstances, drones provide high accuracy, low disturbance, and shorter time to complete a survey. In other circumstances, the authors do not recommend the use of drones. More broadly, context becomes even more important when asking whether, when and how machines might replace humans. Our world is full of technologies that were unimaginable less than a generation ago. Yet we use these technologies daily and they affect all aspects of our lives4. Machines can do many things better than humans, but there remain many things that humans can do better than machines. We can be empathetic, we can question our own biases, we can use our humanity to fight against rules that shouldn’t be automated5. This study reminds us that striking a balance where context is taken into account may be the best way to synthesize the strengths of both our machines and our own human minds.
- Demetis, D. 2019. Algorithms have already taken over human decision making. Posted in The Conversation 8 Mar 2019 at https://theconversation.com/algorithms-have-already-taken-over-human-decision-making-111436.
- Valle, R.G. & F. Scarton. 2020. Feasibility of counting breeding Pied Avocets and Black-winged Stilts using drones. Wader Study 127(3): 257–265.
- Hodgson, J.C., R. Mott, S.M. Baylis, T.T. Pham, S. Wotherspoon, A.D. Kilpatrick, R.R. Segaran, I. Reid, A. Terauds & L.P. Koh. 2018. Drones count wildlife more accurately
Can machines replace humans? Article authored by Deborah Buehler It’s a thought-provoking question. Especially at moment when machines – and algorithms more broadly – are increasingly impacting our lives1. However, one might understandably say that further clarification is needed. What type of machines? What task is to be done? In this issue of Wader Study, Roberto Valle and Francesco Scarton highlight the nuanced way this question could be answered2. Of course, they don’t ask whether
The IWSG Small Project Grants Committee have decided to extend the deadline for application to 31st December 2020. With this grant we aim to support shorebird studies that otherwise will not go ahead. This could be all sorts of projects related to waders (shorebirds): ecological and/or conservation research, pilot studies looking at biological aspects of a single or a few species, or counts of staging birds at unexplored sites. Or something completely different! Application is open for IWSG
ÉLVONAL Shorebird Science is happy to announce the IV. ÉLVONAL conference “Sex roles and breeding ecology of shorebirds” during 8–9 January 2021, which will be held as an online meeting. Find attached the conference leaflet as well as the advert to the current PhD position within ÉLVONAL Shorebird Science project: IV.ELVONAL Conference Flyer ELVONAL PhD Sex roles and breeding ecology The conference will focus on current achievements and future plans of ÉLVONAL teams across the globe
Curlew Action is working to support effective conservation of Eurasian Curlew across Britain and Ireland by providing practical help, raising awareness, increasing natural history education and develop cooperation with farmers and land managers to reverse its decline and ensure its survival. This year, Curlew Action offers you to support their actions with Christmas Cards beautiffuly illustrated by the artists Jessica Holm and Mark Gibbs: The cards will be in stock by 14th November, and are
Impact of the proposed airport on the Tagus Estuary, Portugal | Declaration of the IWSG, October 2020
During the Annual General Meeting of the 2020 IWSG conference (10-11th October), members unanimously vote to support objection to Tagus Estuary airport development. Please find the statement of the IWSG signed by our chair, Jennifer Smart, on our AGM Minutes & Reports web page or directly there:
|Country||Major population group||Total 2003||Total 2008||Total 2014|
|Republic of Ireland||Atlantic||24000||56841||35760|
Following counts of Golden Plovers in Europe in 2003, 2008 and 2014, we are aiming at having coordinated counts of the species on 10-11th or 17-18th October 2020. In some countries, there are already coordinated waterfowl counts during one of these weekends. Each country will pick one of the two weekends. The counts focus on Golden Plovers, but we would like to ask all participants to use this opportunity to include Lapwing and Curlew in the counts. The status of both species in Europe is of
To better understand this potential problem, they conducted a literature review of plastics and shorebirds. Unfortunately, few studies have investigated the presence or quantity of plastics in shorebirds. Consequently, they are reaching out through listservs and various social networks to accomplish the following objectives: 1. Collect unpublished reports and learn about data available on plastic pollution ingestion in shorebirds worldwide. 2. Connect with researchers who are currently carrying out, or wish to learn more about, plastic pollution ingestion in shorebirds. 3. Assess if the factors we think make shorebirds susceptible to plastic pollution are correct, identify taxa that may be especially susceptible to plastics, and determine areas of future research. 4. Gauge interest in potential collaborations for the collection of carcasses and fecal samples for plastic pollution studies in the future.To help with this effort, they would appreciate you answering this survey comprising six questions by Monday September 14th: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScOykZANnxcrgXf_Gb0itjwZ9kl1VUzeL1nvILO4oMfp5wmNg/viewform If you have an questions or would like to follow-up please contact Scott Flemming: email@example.com
Shorebird Plastic Ingestion Survey | Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna-International Arctic Science Committee
Dr. Scott Flemming was recently hired by the Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group (CAFF) and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) to study how shorebirds breeding in the Arctic are impacted by plastic contamination. He is working in conjunction with Dr. Rick Lanctot (Alaska Shorebirds Coordinator with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service) and Dr. Jennifer Provencher (Environment and Climate Change Canada). To better understand this potential
If you haven't already received it, you will find below a message co-signed by Jen and Mark Smart thanked IWSG Member for their support to their fundraising bike ride: Dear IWSG Member, We have finished our epic fundraising bike ride – 603 miles and over 6000m of climbing in 8 days. It was one of the best but hardest things we have ever done, and the British weather certainly made us earn every single donation. I would like to say a massive thanks to the IWSG members we saw on the way, the
The IWSG have received a request to pass on details of a new study on backpack transmitter attachment effects that is looking for input from shorebird researchers around the globe. The research team from the USGS lead by Rick Lanctot and Emily Weiser aims to compare the success of various methods of deployment of back-mounted transmitters on shorebirds. For that they are asking for people to download a spreadsheet (access
- Lindström, A & T. Alerstam. 2020. Waders flying with folded legs – which species, when, where and why? Wader Study 127(2): 113-120.
- Bäckman, J., A. Andersson, L. Pedersen, S. Sjöberg, A. P. Tøttrup & T. Alerstam. 2017. Actogram analysis of free-flying migratory birds: new perspectives based on acceleration logging Journal of Comparative Physiology A203: 543–564. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-017-1165-9
- Ryeland, J., M.A. Weston & M.R.E. Symonds. 2019. Leg length and temperature determine the use of unipedal roosting in birds. Journal of Avian Biology 50(5): e02008. https://doi.org/10.1111/jav.020
- Walker, A.M. & R.A. Meyers. 2019. The anatomy and histochemistry of flight hindlimb posture in birds. II. The flexed hindlimb posture of perching birds. Journal of Anatomy 234: 668–678.
- Sawyers, C. L. 2019. Herceptin: A First Assault on Oncogenes that Launched a Revolution. Cell 179: 8-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2019.08.027
Scientific research often begins with a mystery – something in the data that makes the researchers think – Huh? That’s funny. In this issue of Wader Study, authors Lindström and Alerstam begin their paper1 with just such a mystery. The researchers studied the 5,000–7,000 km non-stop flights that Great Snipes Gallinago media make during migration from central Sweden to equatorial Africa (and back). To do this, they attached tiny sensors (called mini-multisensory accelerometers) to the