Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are relatively new technologies gaining popularity among wildlife biologists. As with any new tool in wildlife science, operating protocols must be developed through rigorous protocol testing. Few studies have been conducted that quantify the impacts UAS may have on unhabituated individuals in the wild using standard aerial survey protocols. We evaluated impacts of unmanned surveys by measuring UAS-induced behavioral responses during the nesting phase of lesser snow geese (Anser caerulescens caerulescens) in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada. We conducted surveys with a fixed-wing Trimble UX5 and monitored behavioral changes via discreet surveillance cameras at 25 nests. Days with UAS surveys resulted in decreased resting and increased nest maintenance, low scanning, high scanning, head-cocking and off-nest behaviors when compared to days without UAS surveys. In the group of birds flown over, head-cocking for overhead vigilance was rarely seen prior to launch or after landing (mean estimates 0.03% and 0.02%, respectively) but increased to 0.56% of the time when the aircraft was flying overhead suggesting that birds were able to detect the aircraft during flight. Neither UAS survey altitude nor launch distance alone in this study was strong predictors of nesting behaviors, although our flight altitudes (≥75 m above ground level) were much higher than previously published behavioral studies. Synthesis and applications: The diversity of UAS models makes generalizations on behavioral impacts difficult, and we caution that researchers should design UAS studies with knowledge that some minimal disturbance is likely to occur. We recommend flight designs take potential behavioral impacts into account by increasing survey altitude where data quality requirements permit. Such flight designs should consider a priori knowledge of focal species’ behavioral characteristics. Research is needed to determine whether any such disturbance is a result of visual or auditory stimuli.
Barnas, Andrew; Newman, Robert; Felege, Christopher J.; Corcoran, Michael P.; Hervey, Samuel D.; Stechmann, Tanner J.; Rockwell, Robert F.; and Ellis-Felege, Susan N., "Evaluating behavioral responses of nesting lesser snow geese to unmanned aircraft surveys" (2017). CUNY Academic Works.