Gail Patricelli's main focus of study is understanding how birds communicate, especially during courtship rituals. As she discovered early in her career, though, studying these behaviors in the wild in any sort of controlled way is hard. So two decades ago Patricelli turned to remote-controlled robots wrapped in taxidermied skins to impersonate female birds. For the past decade, her current research has focused on the Greater Sage-Grouse, and she calls the latest versions of her robotic birds “fembots.”
A leader in her field, Patricelli is one of only a handful of researchers who have managed to successfully design robotic bird imposters, and she says she’s been surprised by how difficult interaction studies have been. Lizards and frogs are much simpler to fake with rubber molds, but for animals like birds, she says, “it’s really hard to build something that they’re going to fall for and that’s going to elicit natural behaviors.”
Should you try it?
Whether robot interactions are a helpful experimental technique depends mostly on the animal’s own characteristics—mainly how large they are and how thoughtfully they interact with each other. Because of this, Patricelli says she has only tried the technique to fool male birds of lekking species. “That’s about as easy as you can get in terms of the choosiness of your target animal,” she says of the males pining for any attention they can get... "since Greater Sage-Grouse males don’t really seem to have any dealbreakers. “Anything brown and round is fair game,” says Patricelli, who says she’s even seem them try to mate with dried cow poop when nothing more promising was around. “The bar is pretty low for us in trying to fool the males.”
Before even running an experiment, Patricelli has to scout out the lek—deciding on a path for the fembot to follow, trimming some unmanageable clumps of grass, flagging obstacles to avoid, and the like. Actually driving the robot takes two people, with Patricelli tucked in a blind and a PhD student, Ryane Logsdon, perched on a hill with binoculars and a radio to help navigate the lek.
Patricelli and Logsdon aren’t just contending with difficult terrain—they’re also trying to keep the fembot a safe distance away from males. Ideally, the robot is about 30 feet away from males at all times. That’s close enough for the male to respond to the female, but far enough away that the pair can evacuate the robot if needed. That’s the one downside of males with low standards: If they get close enough, they’ll likely try to actually mate with the fembot, which can cause wear and tear on the robot’s taxidermy disguise.