Drones and birds — a growing conflict? July 6, 2015

Posted by Ilana DeBare in Birding, Conservation

By Ilana DeBare

The rocky oceanfront near San Francisco’s Sutro Baths is a key nesting spot for shorebirds such as Black Oystercatchers and Brandt’s Cormorants. So longtime birder Alan Hopkins was dismayed last January when he started seeing recreational drones buzzing along that section of shore.

Sam Schuchat had been excited to see a pair of Western Gulls nesting on a ledge across from his office at the California Coastal Conservancy in downtown Oakland in June. Then a drone swooped by and frightened the parent gulls off their nest.

Drones and birds: At this point such unplanned encounters are still an anomaly. But as the commercial and recreational use of drones grows, so will the potential for them to disrupt and endanger wildlife.

Drones — pilotless aircraft that often resemble mini-helicopters — are spreading. The Federal Aviation Authority is finalizing rules this year that will allow the widespread use of commercial, non-military drones. As many as 10,000 to 30,000 commercial drones could be in the air by 2020, used for everything from scientific research and police surveillance to bridge repairs and package delivery. Many of the companies making drones are based in the Bay Area, tapping the engineering know-how and financing of Silicon Valley.

While it’s good that the FAA is developing rules to govern drone use, the proposed rules do not address the potential impacts on wildlife.

And the FAA’s oversight does not include recreational drones used by hobbyists – probably the kind sighted by Hopkins and Schuchat.

In most cases, a single scare from a passing drone isn’t likely to harm a bird. In the incident with the Oakland gull nest, the parent birds returned to the nest after the drone passed and successfully hatched some chicks.

Western Gull and chicks at nest site that was disturbed by a drone / Photo by Sam Schuchat

Western Gull and chicks at Oakland nest site that was disturbed by a drone / Photo by Sam Schuchat

But repetition raises the stakes.

Parent birds may abandon a nest if they’re disturbed repeatedly. Even one disturbance can leave their chicks temporarily vulnerable to predators. And flushing birds while they’re roosting or feeding makes it harder for them to build up the energy reserves for successful breeding and migration.

Many bird species today are already under severe pressure from loss of habitat and climate change. They will find it even harder to survive these challenges if their rest and feeding is constantly being interrupted by drones.

Drone sighted by Alan Hopkins over Sutro Baths and Seal Rocks / Photo by Alan Hopkins

Drone sighted by Alan Hopkins over Sutro Baths / Photo by Alan Hopkins

Drone over Seal Rocks in January 2015 / Photo by Alan Hopkins

Drone near Sutro Baths in January 2015 / Photo by Alan Hopkins

Black Oystercatcher, a species that relies on rocky waterfront like the area around Sutro Baths for nesting / Photo by Rick Lwwis

Black Oystercatcher, a species that relies on rocky waterfront like the area around Sutro Baths for nesting / Photo by Rick Lewis

No major conservation group has so far launched a campaign about drones. But National Audubon released a short policy statement in June on “Managing Conflicts Between Birds and Unmanned Aerial Systems.”

National Audubon noted that drones can be a valuable conservation tool when used by scientists for tasks like nest monitoring or aerial photography of remote habitat.

A summer 2014 story in Audubon magazine pointed out that light-aircraft crashes are the most common death risk for wildlife biologists. Drones would allow scientists to study remote wildlife with less risk to human life.

Drones “could be an effective and efficient way to conduct research on birds if they are approached under carefully monitored conditions,” NAS wrote in its recent policy statement.

But NAS added that birds may be harassed, hurt, or killed in collisions with drones. (Click here to see video footage taken by a drone that was attacked by a hawk in Cambridge, Mass., in late 2014.)

“The exponential increase in Unmanned Aerial Systems [drones] has raised concerns about their effects on sensitive wildlife populations such as birds,” NAS warned.

NAS suggests some initial “best practices” for drone operators:

  1. Know laws protecting wildlife. Be aware of laws protecting migratory birds and endangered species from negative effects of human activities such as drones.
  2. Respect rules on public lands. Observe federal, state, local and tribal policies regarding drone use. (The drones at Sutro Baths were probably violating existing rules prohibiting drones in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. But there are no signs saying that drones are prohibited there, and there has been no public education campaign targeted at drone operators.)
  3. Check posted signs and information web pages to be aware of sensitive areas with 
extensive bird numbers that should be considered no-fly zones.
  4. Recognize seasonal activities. Avoid activity over nesting or flightless birds or habitats used by birds for 
those activities during sensitive periods such as breeding or molting.
  5. Conduct a pre-flight check for birds in the flight area immediately before take-off. If birds are detected in that airspace, it should be avoided.
  6. Leave a 50-100 foot buffer from areas where birds are present flying, in trees, or on the 
ground. A recent quadcopter study indicated little response by waterbirds beyond 12 feet, but other types of UAS [drones], or different bird species, may elicit a response at greater distances.

What do you think?

Is there a way to get out front on this issue, and prevent drone-bird conflicts while drones are still relatively uncommon? How should we weigh the potential benefits of drones against their potential dangers? Do National Audubon’s suggestions go far enough? Should wildlife advocates work together with privacy advocates on the drone issue?

Let us know what you see, as well as what you think. Are you noticing drones when you’re out birding in the field? Are you noticing any effects on birds?

There’s very little data so far on drones and birds. We’re likely to learn more as drones become more common.

But wouldn’t it be nice to manage an environmental conflict before it happens for once, rather than waiting to learn from our mistakes?

Tags: drones, drones and birds, drones and conservation, drones and wildlife, National Audubon Society, Unmanned Aerial Systems.


  1. Bonnie Clarfield-Bylin
    July 9th, 2015 at 9:17 AM

    As drones started showing up in wild places, the National Park Service wisely took immediate action systemwide. Per policy, Drones are not allowed in the air space above any park unlit operated by the National Park Service.

    As a recently retired NPS ranger, I personally experienced the increased use of drones during my last couple of years of work. The Santa Monica Mountains NRA is located in a fairly affluent region, and it was common for hobbyists to use drones from the roadside and parking lots. The NPS policy took effect fairly early after drones were for available to the general public, so it made enforcement of the “no drone policy” fairly easy. (Although I made many people unhappy.)

    Not only dondrones potentially disturb wildlife, they interfere with the peace and quiet being sought by many park users, can seriously spook horses causing potential equestrian accidents, and can become trash if they get stuck in vegetation or crash in difficult terrain.

  2. GGAS
    July 9th, 2015 at 9:24 AM

    Bonnie, thank you and NPS for being ahead of the curve on this! I do think there needs to be more education among drone users about the no-frone policy in our national parks. At least here with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, some are not aware of that.

  3. Vicki robinson
    July 15th, 2015 at 3:25 PM

    I recently had a drone fly over me in Garin Regional Park in Hayward. I initially heard what sounded like a bee hive, but when I looked for the bee’s it was a small drone just like the one your picture. It turns out that the East Bay Regional Parks has a no drone flying policy. Good for them to be in front of this issue. I talked to a ranger and he said that the the pilot is usually close by and when confronted they did not know it was illegal. Maybe there needs to be warnings on the packages and instructions on where they can and cannot be flown.

  4. GGAS
    July 15th, 2015 at 3:29 PM

    Thanks for bringing this up with the ranger, Vicki! And it’s good to know that EBRPD has a policy. Now they just need to make sure people know about it….

  5. July 15th, 2015 at 5:35 PM

    This year Peregrine Falcons did not nest on the Fruitvale Bridge in Oakland, the first time in several years. I believe it was a drone that caused them to relocate. I saw a drone briefly fly to the nest site and hover in front of the nest briefly on Feb 1, 2015.

  6. Kathe Jordan
    August 22nd, 2015 at 5:15 PM

    Please see the Berkeley Voice from Friday, August 21 to see a letter I had published there on drones. It will probably be published in the West County Times/Oakland Tribune, SJ Mercury News this week. I am convinced this is the time to act. Once the infrastructure is in place, it will be hard to recapture our sky.

  7. GGAS
    August 22nd, 2015 at 5:52 PM

    Thanks Kathe! Great initiative.

  8. GGAS
    August 26th, 2015 at 9:42 AM

    There is a bill moving in the Calif Legislature that would prohibit drones flying within 350 feet over private property.


    “The Assembly voted 43-11 on SB856 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, which would create a trespass crime for operating a drone less than 350 feet above ground over private property without consent.”

    The bill now returns to the state Senate for another vote, and then goes to Gov. Brown for his signature.

    This does not affect drone use over public lands like parks or seashore. But I think it is a helpful step in establishing regulation of drones, and ingraining the concept among drone owners that they can’t just fly their craft willy-nilly wherever they want.

    Whether or not Audubon supports this bill (it’s not directly related to birds or habitat), we may want to support it as individuals by sending emails, especially when it gets to Gov. Brown’s desk.


  9. Peter Marshall
    November 13th, 2015 at 3:40 PM

    Our chapter’s Conservation Committee has been discussing this for awhile, but most of the news articles we see deal with FAA policy for drone threats to aircraft and sensitive airspace like the White House lawn. Only anecdotal reports on conflict with birds. The public review of forthcoming drone rules should definitely include Audubon. The 400 ft. above residential areas and municipal parks may be as important for birds as the obvious space above National Parks.

  10. Nan Foster
    February 25th, 2016 at 9:48 PM

    I saw people using drones at Candlestick Point State Recreation area, and I thought it was disturbing birds. Have they been banned in California state parks too?

  11. GGAS
    February 25th, 2016 at 10:08 PM

    There is currently a ban on recreational drones in national parks, but no statewide policy for California State Parks. A recent LA Times article says that a few California state parks have drone policies, and that in any park, if the drone is endangering wildlife or people it would be violating park policies. The article is at http://www.latimes.com/travel/la-tr-d-spot-20160110-story.html

    Clearly, we could use a statewide park policy on this that is clear and consistent.

  12. August 6th, 2016 at 3:56 PM

    Recreational drones can scare birds away from essential activities like feeding, roosting, and nesting.

  13. GGAS
    August 7th, 2016 at 7:48 AM


  14. Jon Gillespie
    April 7th, 2017 at 9:01 PM

    Hope I’m not too late to the party here… As a wildlife biologist as well as FAA certified sUAS operator, there is very much a need to regulate where drones are and are not allowed to be flown, and this needs to be well communicated – which it is not presently.

    That said, if we are to ban flying under 350ft (FAA bans flying OVER 400ft), banning flying in any open space, banning flying over water, banning flying where there are birds, then cutting the funding of the compliance organisations what you are going to get are situations where there is virtually nowhere for UAS enthusiasts can fly, or those ‘allowed’ areas are prohibitively far away, so they are just going to give these restrictive attitudes and rules the middle finger, including to every person who complains for the sake of it (yes they exist).

    The best practices noted at the beginning of comments section seem reasonable to myself (I have a level of training, experience and knowledge that many people flying UAS’s simply don’t) however I question how they would be implemented? how do you expect to educate the population on the intricacies of varies species matting periods, etc? what sort of compliance monitoring would be expected?

    I also note that the original article was written in 2015 – what has happened with the suggested guidelines since?