Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Remote-Controlled Bird Assists Conservation

"In the pre-dawn hours last Friday morning, I had the thrilling experience of joining biologist Dr. Gail Patricelli from UC Davis in a sage grouse blind at a lek in central Wyoming.

On this particular morning, Dr. Patricelli was doing studies using a robotic female grouse (YES, robotic!) to monitor how males respond when a female enters the lek.

Do they move towards her and orient their calls in a certain direction? How persistent are they?

As she described their social structure and behavior, it starts to sound eerily similar to a college fraternity. Some males are clearly more successful than others—attracting and mating with a large cadre of females. This season, the winning male, who the team dubbed “Dick,” was a bit on the rough-and-rude side but won over 60 or so gals (so much for finesse).

I was surprised to learn that of the 40-50 males attending that lek, probably only a small handful would ever “get the girl”. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there for a male grouse.

From the blind Dr. Patricelli controls the incredibly realistic looking robotic grouse on wheels that she built and affectionately named “Pepa” (there is also a “Salt”). She has built three so far, each with small improvements from the last. The very first model was maneuvered on train tracks, but Gail found that wheels are sturdier and the robot is less likely to fall over, though getting stuck in the mud is still a problem.

Dr. Patricelli and her Ph.D. student Anna Perry wait until no other females are on the lek so as not to disturb actual breeding events. Then, using a device that looks like a standard remote control for a hobby robot, Anna radios from an overlooking blind to tell Dr. Patricelli to carefully maneuver Pepa out the blind.

This morning she tests male reactions to female behavior by having Pepa either act interested (looking up and around) or uninterested (pecking at the ground) in the “guys” around her.

In addition to recording male responses visually, their calls are being carefully monitored through 16 microphones laid out in a grid pattern across the lek and plugged into digital sound equipment in the blind. - See more at:


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