Tracking the Booming Social Life of the House Finch
If Queens College students noticed house finches fluttering around birdfeeders across campus for the last two years, they were witnessing research into cost-friendly and non-invasive ways to monitor birds.
Ph.D. student Mason Youngblood details his monitoring methods in a paper published in Ringing & Migration. Youngblood works in the lab of Professor David Lahti, of Queens College and The Graduate Center.
Scientists track birds to study their movements and behavior. Youngblood’s method uses radio-frequency identification, or RFID, to determine which birds land at which feeders—information that can reveal insights about the population’s social structure.
RFID has become popular for bird tracking because once birds have been banded with RFID tags on their legs, they don’t need to be re-captured. However, some of the technology remains expensive or requires serious technical skills to put together.
To overcome this, Youngblood went DIY, using a small, low-cost computer called Raspberry Pi Zero W that consists of a single circuit board and combining it with an RFID reader, a portable battery, and a birdfeeder. The whole set-up only requires basic skills in coding and soldering, Youngblood says.
Over the spring and summer seasons of 2018 and 2019 Youngblood caught 185 house finches and banded them with tracking tags. He set up three birdfeeders, each with an antenna that doubles as a perch. When a banded bird lands on the feeder perch, the computer records the bird’s ID, the time, and the date.
With the recorded visits his three feeders collected, Youngblood demonstrated two useful types of analysis researchers can do with this data. For one, they can estimate the structure of the bird population’s social network. Researchers can also analyze the data to figure out the birds’ dominance hierarchy—which ones tend to push their fellow birds off the perch.