How I knew the Ynis-hir blue tits had fledged from 100 miles away

Guest blogger: Dr Andrew Robinson, Manchester University

Last week we saw how the credit-card sized Raspberry Pi computer was monitoring a blue tit nest box at Ynys-Hir. The Raspberry Pi sends data about when birds enter and leave the nest, and weather conditions, to the Internet. I've been monitoring the data from Manchester, and over the last few days noticed changes in the data. What did this mean? Were the chicks about to fledge?

Birds are detected by a pair of invisible light beams just outside and just inside the nest box entrance hole. The computer looks at the sequence the beams are broken and unbroken, to determine if birds are entering or leaving the nest. It also records if a bird just 'bobs' its head out to look out of the entrance. The time it takes for a bird to leave, or hold its head in the entrance is recorded.

The Raspberry Pi and bird box set-up at Yynis-hir

On Monday afternoon I noticed the number of visits to the nest was decreasing. The time that a bird spent waiting, looking out of the nest was increasing. Did this change of behaviour mean the blue tit chicks were about to fledge?

Parents tend to encourage their offspring to fledge by reducing their food, and by calling from outside the nest. The data supported this behaviour, but there was only one way to check, for someone to visit the nest and report back. A few anxious hours waiting and I received confirmation, the chicks had fledged, the data the computer was showing was correct!

Sometimes I'm amazed by technology. I've got data about every visit to the nest, 24 hours a day, without spending hours watching the nest box. And because I was able to connect the Raspberry Pi to the internet, I could keep an eye on the nest from a distance. Last week I was able to show the bird activity, live to an audience hundreds of miles away at Cheltenham Science Festival. I'm particularly impressed since this was achieved with a computer that costs, as Chris Packham puts it, less than a Chinese takeaway!

Graphs show the data collected about the blue tits.

Data mining is another way computers can help us. It gives us new insights into patterns and trends by analysing large quantities of data. We frequently encounter data mining with online shopping sites, it's the technology that drives recommendations that say 'other people were interested in...' I'm going to apply it to detect trends in nature.

At the moment I have data from one nest, for one species, for one clutch. With more data we can see whether birds at a particular location are doing more or less well than 'normal', which may flag the need to investigate their habitat. In the future I’m hoping to gather data from hundreds of nests – potentially worldwide and then feed it all in for analysis!

By next year, a camera should be more widely available for the Raspberry Pi, which will be useful to show what's happening too. It's very difficult for a computer to automatically count the number of chicks in a nest, or check if they're looking healthy.

It's also worth remembering that computers can't completely replace the human involvement, there's currently certain information that can only be obtained from a person. However, we can automate certain aspects, to take out some of the drudgery and help us discover new trends. More importantly for me, they give me more time to do other things, like getting out in the field, experiencing nature myself.

More about Dr Andrew Robinson.

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