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Bird Robots Help Researchers Study Behavior

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Robot house finches that look and behave realistically enough to fool their live counterparts are helping a CSULB professor and his students study the social behavior of birds.

Esteban Fernandez-Juricic, an assistant professor of biological sciences, and students in his research lab – Nima Gilak, J. Chase McDonald, Pritesh Pithia and Anna Valcarcel – published their initial findings in an issue of the journal Animal Behaviour.

In his Behavior and Conservation Laboratory, “we study animal behavior and conservation biology as separate subjects, but we also put both things together and try to use animal behavior tools to answer questions that are relevant to biodiversity conservation and wildlife management. For instance, our applied research is focused on human-wildlife interactions in protected areas. We try to understand the responses of different species to human disturbance like pedestrians, boats or cars or planes.

“We’re also interested in the mechanisms by which birds keep attached to flocks,” he continued. “There is a large body of literature addressing why animals live in groups, but there is comparatively little on the mechanisms by which animals are attracted to each other from a behavioral point of view.

“To understand the mechanisms that maintain a flock, scientists have to manipulate the behavior of the animals within the flock and then measure the reaction of the other flock members,” Fernandez-Juricic explained. “That is not easy to do because it’s difficult to manipulate the behavior of an animal. So we came up with the idea of building robots; then we can manipulate the behavior of the robots with computers and then observe the reaction of the live individuals. We contacted a store called Model Mania and the owner was extremely excited about this project, particularly because a number of our students would be participating in it.”

Using bird skins decommissioned from the CSULB’s Vertebrate Museum, they built male and female house finch models whose heads move up and down, he explained. “You can change the frequency at which they do that. The students participated in the fine-tuning of these robots, which was a long and difficult process due to the size of the models and the complexity of their movements. We used a laptop computer to control their behavior and conducted experiments to measure the reaction of live animals to different robot behaviors,” he said.

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The group captured several birds, placed them in fenced enclosures on campus, then observed and videotaped the birds interacting with the robots. The birds were released afterward.

“It turned out that the live individuals were reacting to different behaviors of the robots. It was pretty exciting,” said Fernandez-Juricic. “Then we did another experiment, but instead of using robots, we used all live individuals. We tried to generate similar types of behaviors by food-depriving the animals at different times. The good news was that the live subjects reacted in the same way as they reacted to the robots. That corroborated that the robots could be used from now on in this type of research.”

They plan to conduct additional experiments using more advanced robots. “We did another project to understand the mechanisms the animals would use to keep track of other flock members at different distances from their flock mates. We found out that when birds are very close by, they copy the behavior of the flock mates, but as the distance between birds increases, they tend to behave independently from each other. This has to do with a distance effect influencing the transmission of visual social information between individuals. That’s what we believe and we’d like to test this idea with robots. The results of this project will also have implications for the transmission of different types of messages in human societies.”

Learn more about Fernandez-Juricic’s research.