How to protect New Zealand’s native birds? DIY tech

A Pukeko, or New Zealand Swamp Hen (Photo: Bernard Spragg/Flickr)

A Pukeko, or New Zealand Swamp Hen (Photo: Bernard Spragg/Flickr)

New Zealand is currently on a mission to protect their birds from predators. “Rats, possums and stoats kill 25 million of our native birds every year,” the nation’s Prime Minister John Key said in a statement this July, “and prey on other native species such as lizards and, along with the rest of our environment, we must do more to protect them.”

The mutli-island country has no native mammalian predators, and ever since rats, stoats and possums were introduced to the country (for different reasons) decades ago, native species have been under threat, NPR reports. Nearly a quarter of the country’s native birds have gone extinct, says Science Friday, and the New Zealand government is working on ways to keep birds safe, including rodent-sniffing dogs patrolling nature sanctuaries.

A New Zealand robin / toutouwai rests on a pole (Photo: Bernard Spragg/Flickr)

A New Zealand robin / toutouwai rests on a pole (Photo: Bernard Spragg/Flickr)

After moving from Christchurch to the country, mechanical engineer and ecologist economist Grant Ryan was disturbed by the number of rats he encountered — and the few birds he heard, he says at TEDxChristchurch. After tackling his rat problem, he began to wonder how he could bring predator control into the 21st century and make it easier to defend native birds.

“Instead of using food — because these animals can only smell from over three to five meters, but they can hear up to ten times that distance — if you could lure them with sound, then potentially one trap could cover a hundred times the area,” Ryan says. A sound-based trap could be electronic and customizable, Ryan says, allowing a user to target different predators using the same trap.

Ryan wants to use A.I. to build a monitoring device that would detect nearby predators and choose the appropriate sound to attract them to a trap. He has built a camera that uses heat and infrared detection to monitor predator behavior, he says, and he is uploading the videos to the cloud to teach a machine to detect different predators, he says.

“Just imagine a device the size of my fist that’s sitting in the forest; imagine it’s making little sounds to try and elicit a response, and then it goes, ‘Ah, right, that’s a male possum. We know it’s a beech forest and it’s autumn just after a full moon: The best thing to lure it in is this.’ It lures it in; a camera automatically identifies it; [a device] squirts poison on it; and then [the device] will go back into listening mode,” Ryan says.

A model for Ryan's trap (Photo: Grant Ryan)

A model for Ryan’s trap (Photo: Grant Ryan)

The trap is still under development, Ryan says, but he’s made his work open source and lots of other developers are joining the project. He hopes it will be in forests soon.

Until then, Ryan is working on monitoring the birds in his area. He built a bird song monitor out of an old smartphone and installed it in his backyard to track the resurgence of birds in his area.

Ryan's homemade "Cacophonometer" (Photo: Grant Ryan)

Ryan’s homemade “Cacophonometer” (Photo: Grant Ryan)

He calls it a Cacophonometer — and is currently tracking the cacophony of bird songs in his backyard.

To learn more, watch his whole talk below:

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