Raspberry Pi bird box

Wednesday 5 June 2013, 18:27

Springwatch Guest Blog Springwatch Guest Blog

Guest blogger: Dr Andrew Robinson, Manchester University.

If you're anything like me, you've wondered what happens in your garden while you're not watching. I wanted to know when birds are most active – are they busier in the evening or early morning? Thanks to the latest technology, now with a couple of taps of my smartphone I can monitor the bird activity in my garden from anywhere in the world.

Traditionally, recording bird activity was a manual process and required many hours of constant nest watching. Springwatch has an army of story developers watching cameras and noting activity round the clock. I didn’t fancy hours watching a bird box so wondered if I could get a computer to do it for me.

Last February, a new tiny computer, the size of a credit card sized went on sale for £30. The quirkily named 'Raspberry Pi' computer was created to get more people interested in computers and I'd become aware of it through my work with the School of Computer Science at The University of Manchester. The Raspberry Pi computer's diminutive dimensions and low cost meant it could be placed where computers had never been placed before – for me, that mean in a nest box.

pi bird-box Raspberry Pi bird box

The tiny Raspberry Pi computer records when birds enter and leave the nest box, together with information on the weather. This information is sent over the Internet so activity can be monitored from anywhere.

We've been monitoring a blue tit nest here at Ynys-Hir with the computer. The latest data is shown below. The orange bars show the number of visits per 1.3 hours, the red line shows temperature and the green line shows wind speed. I'm hoping to post more graphs later.

raspberry pi blue tit graph Blue tit activity

So far I've discovered a few things from the data. The blue tits start feeding their young at about 4am – I'd never have observed the nest box at that time myself! It also appears activity drops as wind speed increases. This is something I want to investigate more.

As far as we know this has never been done before, so it's real cutting edge stuff. For me it's really exciting as it shows how computing isn't just about beige boxes on desks. What's also great is that it's easy, affordable and accessible for everyone to do. 

I'm intending to publish instructions soon so everyone can monitor their own nest boxes. Who knows what we'll find out when we start comparing all that data!

Find out more about Dr Andrew Robinson.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Loved this post - look forward to reading your recipe for Raspberry Pi so that we can give this a try with our bird box next year.

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    Comment number 2.

    I wonder what was used to measure the nest activity - a simple IR motion detector or something else?

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    Comment number 3.

    Looking forward to trying this as I have not had any luck with my camara in the bird box that I have!

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    Comment number 4.

    Interesting correlation of activity and wind speed. It would be good to get rainfall data as well.

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    Comment number 5.

    Hi Dr Robinson,
    A brilliant idea! Could you give us a stage by stage 'recipe' on how to replicate the set up. Cameras, triggers [that start the filming or makes the bird in/out count] and how all this interfaces with the Raspberry Pi computer.
    Would be nice to replicate for our back garden but how is it actually done 'in the field' ?

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    Comment number 6.

    Software called "motion" is useful for this kind of project. Not sure if it will directly count activity. Probably ideal for a home project to capture photos or video.

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    Comment number 7.

    It was really good to see this project featured on the programme.
    We would like to use it at our school. We have the nesting boxes with cameras and a Davis weather station on our school network. It would be an ideal project to use on the Raspberry Pi computers that we are starting to use. Please will you publish the details here when you make it available?

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    Comment number 8.

    Really good idea might use it on my bird box next year my bird box has great tits nesting in it but not this year because I think that because the trees where late in blooming this year they have not nested I am going to put cameras in my bird boxes as well next January or February.

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    Comment number 9.

    Fantastic use of the excellent Raspberry Pi! Are you using the Pi's recently(ish) released module or a USB webcam to handle the activity detection? I assume you're running a flavour of linux on it - what build have you run with? :)

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    Comment number 10.

    I'm monitoring nests in two different ways. I have infrared light beams that detect when a bird is passing through the nest box hole. I've also using 'motion' software to detect activity via a webcam modified to be sensitive to infrared light. I'm intending to use a Raspberry Pi camera too. I am still in the process of writing up a 'recipe' -- currently testing and refining it to make it as simple and easy to follow as possible.

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    Comment number 11.

    Couldn't the activity be related with how fast the bird finds food for it's youngs? You could try to get more sample data and then, at a given point during the day, put some food near the nest and see how does that affects the activity. Also, you could try to find how weather affects the activity, maybe birds are more active in the days before a storm, it makes sense taking into account that insects are more active before storms.

    Great project!


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