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For the first time artificial intelligence for the benefit of the birds

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a system that allows the tracking of hundreds of birds using a tiny GPS device * Thanks to the new system, the researchers were able to encourage the culture of breathing in agricultural areas, thus keeping away birds and various pests that harm the fields

A selection of migratory bird species that stopped to rest in Agmon Hula. Illustration:
A selection of migratory bird species that stopped to rest in Agmon Hula. Illustration:

A unique project of its kind allows parallel tracking of hundreds of different birds using GPS - a tiny tracking device attached to the chicken's back. The new system (ATLAS) tracks the devices and the birds and produces a huge amount of data for the researchers. Therefore, they use artificial intelligence technologies, machine learning and modern big data methods to analyze the data. The ATLAS system is installed in Emek Harod and Emek Ha'Ma'ain.

The unique research was conducted under the leadership of Dr. Or Spiegel from the School of Zoology at Tel Aviv University and Prof. Assaf Schwartz from the Technion. The research was recently presented as part of the first conference of the AI4Good initiative shared by Tel Aviv University and Google, which was dedicated to the possible contribution of artificial intelligence to environmental research and conservation.

The Atlas system is a unique development of Prof. Sivan Toledo from the Blavatnik School of Computer Science at Tel Aviv University and Prof. Ran Natan from the Hebrew University and head of the Minerva Center for Movement Research. The system works by attaching a tiny transmitter to the chicken's back. The lifespan of the transmitter battery is from two weeks for the small species, to more than a year for large species such as anthrax. One of the important technological advantages of the Atlas system is the possibility of attaching small and especially cheap transmitters to poultry and other animals.

"The innovative system actually makes it possible to track small animals with unprecedented resolutions. Suddenly you see the details, it's like putting on glasses for the first time", says Dr. Spiegel. "It's a tremendous experience, we are simultaneously following diverse species such as puffins, cygnus, falcons, woodpeckers, nightingales, ravens, kingfishers and more."

According to Dr. Spiegel, as a general rule, a transmitter of up to 4% of the bird's weight can be attached, so as not to burden the bird. If the bird weighs 100 grams - that means a transmitter that weighs only four grams. It used to be possible to spend a few points for a four gram transmitter. In the GPS system, for example, you can extract hundreds of points. The Atlas system allows us to extract hundreds of thousands of movement points from a four gram transmitter. Of course, hundreds of thousands of points multiplied by 150 details is a lot of very relevant information."

The Atlas system is used by a large number of scientists who study various zoological and ecological aspects to characterize the ecological corridor of Emek Harod. Dr. Spiegel adds: "The ecological corridor allows the population to maintain continuity, otherwise there would be two populations separated from each other by barriers such as settlements and infrastructure, and they would be more vulnerable to extinction. So far, cameras have been used to see if the deer, for example, is using the corridor or not. The Atlas system gives us a much higher resolution. We assume that all animals can pass through the corridor, but here's an example, we just discovered that nightingales avoid fields. At the level of landscape planning, we only need to add six meters of natural vegetation at the edges of the fields, and in this way we will also allow birds such as the nightingale to use the corridor effectively, without crossing the fields. Nature will benefit and the farmer will not lose much land and will receive compensation from the authorities. Each bird and its requirements".

One of the most interesting projects that use the Atlas system is the respiration project of PhD student Shlomo Cain, under the direction of Dr. Spiegel and Professor Amiratos Yossi Leshem, from the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University and the founder of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration. A shrike is a relatively large bird, weighing about 400 grams, which feeds mainly on voles - a species of mouse that is harmful to agricultural fields - and other rodents. The idea behind the project is to encourage the breathing population as a natural substitute for chemical pesticides designed to keep away gnats, which cost farmers a lot of money and which eventually seep into the soil and into the drinking water of all of us, harming wild animals, migratory birds and humans.

"Since 2002 we have been working with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers under the title 'Birds know no borders', and in 2008 the project became a national project," says Lashem. "Each female raises between five and 12 chicks, but for that she needs a nesting box. We provide it with the conditions to nest in agricultural areas - a box suitable for breathing - and really, where there is such a box, the farmers stop using pesticides. The Atlas system provides us with information on breathing movement, so that we know where to place the boxes, and meanwhile we have about 5,000 boxes in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. These breaths connect the peoples, between Muslims and Jews, because they really know no borders, and out of about 70 breaths that are broadcast, 7 have already flown to Jordan."

Unlike the plover, which is known to travel long distances, outside of their migration season songbirds roam over a much smaller area. A surprising and exciting innovation came as part of a project by doctoral student Michal Handel, in collaboration with Tel Aviv University and the Technion, and the birder Yohai Vaserlauf, who together at the beginning of June of this year transmits a song of liberation to the bird. After several weeks during which he was released, he stayed in the orchard and the almond groves of Kibbutz Ein Harod Meuhed, in the dead of night he decided to fly to the Kingdom of Jordan - where the system continues to monitor his movements with alert anticipation. This is one of the first times that a stable songbird has been recorded flying many kilometers and crossing an international border in Israel.

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