Bird-identifying AI could put an end to leg bands

Bird-identifying AI could put ...
The system images a great tit, making note of the plumage pattern on its back
The system images a great tit, making note of the plumage pattern on its back
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The system images a great tit, making note of the plumage pattern on its back
The system images a great tit, making note of the plumage pattern on its back
Two social weavers, as imaged by the system
Two social weavers, as imaged by the system

If you saw a finch one time, chances are you'd have great difficulty picking it out from a large group of finches later on. A new artificial intelligence-based system can do just that, though, potentially making life much easier for both biologists and the birds that they study.

Ordinarily, if a wildlife biologist wants to track an individual bird, they have to capture it, put an identity band on its leg, release it, then later recapture it to read that band. Needless to say, doing so is quite a hassle for the scientist, and very stressful to the bird. There are now also remotely readable GPS tags, although these still have to initially be attached to the animal.

Seeking a better alternative, an international consortium of research groups has created an AI system that can identify individual birds based on nothing but photos.

It was trained on a database of images of thousands of birds, each animal displaying distinctive patterns in their plumage. In this way, the system learned what to make note of in subsequent images, in terms of unique features.

The AI was then tested on wild populations of great tits and sociable weavers, and a captive population of zebra finches. In all cases, it utilized a camera installed at a feeding station, which started by getting an initial close-up shot of each bird. When that bird later returned and got photographed again, the system was able to match that photo up to the first one, determining that both shots were of the same animal.

Two social weavers, as imaged by the system
Two social weavers, as imaged by the system

So far, the system has proven 87 percent accurate at identifying individual finches, and over 90 percent accurate with the wild birds.

In order to gauge that accuracy, most of the birds had already been equipped with passive integrated transponder tags, not unlike those implanted in dogs and cats. When that tag was read by antennae at the feeding station, the system recorded the tag's individual code, plus it triggered the camera to take a photo. This means that all the photos were of animals that had also been identified by their tags – in practical use, of course, the system would utilize nothing but the photos.

It should be noted that the scientists have yet to determine how the AI may be affected by changes in birds' appearance over time, such as when they go through feather-molting cycles.

Taking part in the study were researchers from the University of Porto (Portugal), the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (Germany), the CNRS institute (France), the University of Paris-Saclay, the University of Konstanz (Germany), the University of Montpellier (France), and the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (South Africa).

The AI system is described in a paper that was recently published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

Sources: British Ecological Society, CNRS

This seems like an awfully long way from prime time in a world where individual species of birds (still) have populations in the millions. And where many of the interesting things are learned by identifying birds that are far from their home grounds. You need pretty much 100% accuracy for that.

Would it be less stressful for birds to figure out a way of getting a little of their DNA rather than taking the time and work to band them?
I've always felt that ringing small birds legs, especially those that migrate long distances, could amount to an early death sentence.
The extra weight, trivial to a human, is certainly not so to a small bird. In addition the stress to the bird during the fitting must be significant.
Perhaps the biologists should calculate the weight, as a percentage of the birds weight, and then ring themselves with a similar proportioned weight, for life! The adverse aerodynamics are another question altogether.