Animal Behavior, GIS, and Birds

Animal Behavior, GIS, and Birds

“Birds make any place a chance for discovery, they make a garden seem wild, they are a little bit of wilderness coming into a city park, and for a bird watcher, every walk is filled with anticipation. What feathered jewel might drop out of the sky next?”

– David Sibley, Author


As the human population increases so do the number of threats to birds, which include habitat loss, bird collisions, invasive species, and climate change. Bird conservation is intrinsically tied to knowledge about bird behavior, as we can only protect birds to the degree that we understand their behavior and needs. In recent years GIS has come to play an integral role in bird conservation revolutionizing what we know about avian species. Funding, advocacy, and governmental policies are determined and built upon the information that animal behavior and GIS provide.

How does animal behavior tie in with conservation?

Migration patterns, habitat use, and other animal behaviors affect our lives and our relationships with animals. Traditionally animals were studied in the laboratory with the intention of gathering information that benefited humans. Ethology is the study of animals, with a focus on naturalistic settings. Conservation behavior is a is a new interdisciplinary field to conservation where research skills and psychological methods are utilized to study the behavior of animals in order to give a new perspective on how to prevent the loss of biodiversity.  

New and interesting discoveries on birds are also important for getting the public more interested in caring about these animals; to better bridge the gap between human and non-human animals, organizations should celebrate that all animals possess unique traits and need not resemble humans to deserve respect.

How does GIS tie in with conservation?

GIS-based modeling provides clear pictures of changes in bird abundance and distributions through space and time. Everyday bird observations provide crucial data for scientists studying the big and small questions about bird lives, from migration to the effects of global climate change. More than a century ago, Audubon pioneered the idea of community science with the first Christmas Bird Count. Today the longest-running wildlife census in the hemisphere continues to shape and inform approaches to conservation, providing vital information about bird populations and trends.

Distribution of American Robin Sightings in March 2018 from eBird

In San Fransisco’s efforts to plan a safer city for birds they created the bird refuge map which highlights the areas of particular risk to birds These areas are within 300ft of open water, inland water bodies greater than 2 acres in size, open space greater than 2 acres, the shoreline; where most birds congregate.

During migration is when birds are more vulnerable to predation, availability of resources, and humans. The American Bird Conservancy states that in order to bring protect and bring back migratory birds “we must know all that we can: Where birds go, what they do, what they need.”  

Here are some examples of how animal behavior and GIS can help aid conservation efforts:

  • Up to a billion birds die from collisions with glass windows each year in the United States. These collisions occur because birds see the world differently than we do. For reasons not entirely understood, lights divert nocturnal migrants from their original path. Light Out is a national effort to reduce the problem in which people are encouraged to turn off excess lighting during the months of migration.
  • In the last 500 years, invasive species, specifically cats, have driven more than 70 bird species to extinction. Animal psychology studies the interactions between animals, the environment, and human beings. By studying the dynamics between predator and prey we learn that there is an actual benefit for both species when cats are kept indoors. An improved understanding of how behavior can help contribute to the competitive ability and spread of invasive animals can provide a basis for predicting which species have the potential to become problematic invaders.
  • GIS can help map the changes in habitat loss.  Although climate change is not considered an immediate threat to birds and how it affects them is not certain, it can help predict the impact of climate change on particular species or habitats. 

What you can do to help birds:



Learn More:


Cornell Lab of Ornithology:


American Bird Conservancy:

BirdLife International:

Written by Samantha Sing

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