Disturbance Caused by Aerial Waterfowl Surveys During the Nonbreeding Season

Andrew D. Gilbert, Christopher N. Jacques, Joseph D. Lancaster, Aaron P. Yetter, Heath M. Hagy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aerial surveys flown at low altitudes allow detection, identification, and enumeration of waterfowl and other waterbirds, but few studies have assessed disturbance to these guilds during the nonbreeding period. Excessive disturbance can potentially increase energy expenditure and exposure to hunting mortality contrary to objectives of many waterfowl sanctuaries where surveys are conducted. We used concurrent ground and aerial surveys to estimate the proportion of waterfowl and other waterbirds that exhibited a noticeable reaction (i.e., disturbance) or left the survey area entirely (i.e., abandonment) during low-altitude (i.e., 60–90 m above ground level) aerial surveys during September through January 2014–2017 in Illinois, USA. Overall, disturbance and abandonment probabilities of waterfowl (x̄ = 14 ± 2% [SE] and x̄ = 3 ± 1%, respectively) during aerial surveys were low. However, disturbance and abandonment probabilities varied considerably among taxa (e.g., American coot [Fulica americana] x̄ = 2 ± 1% and x̄ = 0 ± 0%, respectively; killdeer [Charadrius vociferus] x̄ = 92 ± 8% and x̄ = 17 ± 17%, respectively). Additionally, disturbance and abandonment probabilities of light geese (i.e., snow goose [Chen caerulescens] and Ross's goose [C. rossii]) and greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) were relatively high, and nearly all light geese abandoned a survey location as a result of the aerial survey. Among waterfowl taxa, the odds of disturbance from the survey aircraft were 2.2–6.2 times greater at locations closed to waterfowl hunting than locations open to waterfowl hunting. Temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover were not important predictors of disturbance for most guilds, except for a negative influence of temperature on disturbance of geese. Low-altitude aerial surveys were not a significant source of disturbance for many taxa and abandonment events were rare, except events involving light geese. Periodic low-altitude aerial surveys appear to be compatible with objectives of providing sanctuary conditions for most waterfowl and other waterbirds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1063-1071
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Wildlife Management
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020


  • Illinois River Valley
  • aerial survey
  • disturbance probability
  • duck
  • migration
  • waterbird
  • waterfowl

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation

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