ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – For her PhD research, University of New Mexico graduate student Rowan Converse is part of the team bringing new tech to better understand wildlife passing through New Mexico. The Drones for Ducks program uses drones and artificial intelligence to record migrating birds in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache, near Socorro.
“Here in New Mexico, we have populations of migrating birds that pass through a number of different public lands, especially wildlife refuges, like Bosque del Apache, which is our core research site,” Converse says. “Wildlife managers need to know how many birds are coming through this area so that they can make sure that there is enough habitat that there’s enough food and water for the populations to pass through.”
“For this project, we’re focusing on ducks, geese – especially Canada geese – and Sandhill cranes,” Converse says. “Historically, the main way that wildlife biologists used to monitor these big populations of migrating waterfowl, the ducks, geese, and cranes, is by either observing them from the ground . . . or counting them from a low-flying aircraft.”
But Converse and her colleagues have a better way: drones. Using a high-flying drone equipped with a high-quality camera, they’re snapping pictures from above. An artificial intelligence model can then count the birds in the images.
It sounds like a great use of modern tech, but there’s a catch. Artificial intelligence systems (AI) need to be trained by humans; a computer doesn’t know what a bird looks like in a photo unless humans give it examples to learn from.
That’s where Converse and her colleagues turned to the internet. Using the website zooniverse.com, they rely on people from around the world to help teach the computer model what New Mexico’s waterfowl look like.
“We started our project in 2021, and since then we’ve collected nearly two million individual labels through the Zooniverse platform,” Converse says. “It’s just been really a fascinating experience to get to talk to people all over the world and teach them about the environments of New Mexico. And then they’re also really helping us out by providing this really important data that we’re using to help train our AI models to interpret these images for us.”
That work is ongoing. So, you can help by clicking this link and identifying some birds. Once there, the website will guide you through a brief tutorial.
Ultimately, Converse says the project will not only help wildlife managers, like partners at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a better understanding of local wildlife, but the techniques developed in the research can apply to wildlife management around the world.
For the University of New Mexico, the project highlights the kind of work students can get involved in while they study.
“Students are are usually really interested in trying to preserve the ecosystems of New Mexico. And this kind of sits at the intersection of trying to actually solve problems for New Mexico and the country at the same time – but doing it, with really cutting-edge tools that have a lot of job opportunities out in the larger market space,” says Chris Lippitt, a geography professor at UNM. Lippitt is helping oversee the project.
“People that work in this space end up going into everything ranging from defense to conservation science,” Lippitt says. “And we intend for them to be able to go into any of those range of spaces with these skills.”
For younger New Mexicans who are interested in technology, conservation, or science, Lippitt has some advice: “There’s no reason to wait until you’re in college to do those things. Look for opportunities to get engaged now.” – And one way to do that is to help identify some ducks.