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18 February 2015 GPS telemetry for parrots: A case study with the Kea (Nestor notabilis)
Erin M. Kennedy, Joshua R. Kemp, Corey C. Mosen, George L. W. Perry, Todd E. Dennis
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Abstract

Parrots are one of the most complex avian lineages worldwide, yet little is known about their patterns of movement and space use. Such information is vital for understanding the social development and structure of members of this long-lived order, as well as for the establishment of effective conservation and management actions for the many threatened or endangered species. While global positioning system (GPS) telemetry has been employed successfully on a broad range of birds, to date no studies have been published in which this technology has been used on any psittaciform species, most probably due to concerns held by researchers regarding the high cost of GPS units or the perceived ability of members of this order to remove or damage tracking gear. Here, we evaluate the feasibility and performance of animal-borne GPS telemetry as a means of tracking parrots. First, we encased inexpensive (<US$70) archival GPS dataloggers (~19 g) in bite-proof housing, and then we evaluated the effects of the devices on the study animals and their operational performance during field trials (n = 14) on wild-caught Kea (Nestor notabilis), a large (~1 kg) parrot endemic to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. We observed no apparent adverse effects of the loggers on the behavior and condition of the Kea and no damage to the devices that impaired their function, and found that the operational performance of the loggers was similar to that reported for devices deployed on other birds and animals. Our study demonstrates that GPS telemetry can be a highly effective method for characterizing the movement patterns of free-ranging parrots.

INTRODUCTION

Parrots are one of the most distinctive, speciose, and socially complex avian lineages worldwide, yet they also are one of the most threatened groups of birds, with 171 of the 398 recognized extant species being classified as near-threatened to critically endangered (IUCN 2014). Major threats include the degradation, destruction, and fragmentation of critical habitats (Snyder et al. 2000), as well as the illegal trade in wild-caught birds (Weston and Memon 2009). Conversely, in some areas parrots are considered to be major environmental pests because of the damage that they cause to crops and human property (Bomford and Sinclair 2002). Moreover, a number of parrot species that have been introduced outside of their original geographic ranges carry infectious diseases and/or are able to outcompete, displace, or pose other risks to indigenous wildlife (Clavero et al. 2009). Despite the importance of understanding the social development of parrots, as well as the critical need for development of effective conservation and management strategies, little is known about the movement and space-use patterns of parrots (Herrod et al. 2013). Such information is required to identify essential habitats, describe foraging and/or migratory pathways, characterize responses to human perturbation of natural ecosystems, and locate potential ‘hotspots' of human–wildlife conflict that necessitate monitoring or protection.

Currently, one of the most effective means of characterizing the movement patterns of free-ranging birds is satellite telemetry based on the global positioning system (GPS). GPS telemetry has many advantages over other animal-tracking methods such as direct observation, VHF or UHF radio-telemetry, ARGOS satellite telemetry, light-based geolocation, and RFID sensor networks. Such benefits include its typically high spatial accuracy (Hansen and Riggs 2008), capability of determining location at high sampling frequencies (>1 Hz for some devices), ability to record and store large numbers of observations (e.g., >100,000 fixes), scope to precisely register when location estimates are made, capacity to remotely collect bias-free position information in the absence of human observers (Hebblewhite and Haydon 2010), and ability to continuously track the movements of wide-ranging animals for prolonged periods, even in climatic and topographic conditions that are highly unsuitable for field staff (Arthur and Schwartz 1999).

GPS telemetry has great potential to increase knowledge of the movement and spatial ecology of parrots; however, to date no studies have been published in which this method has been employed (Herrod et al. 2013). Most probably this is because of concerns held by researchers that the strong crushing beaks, acute manual dexterity, and high intelligence (Pepperberg 2006) of psittaciforms may limit the durability and retention of animal-borne GPS receivers (Herrod et al. 2013, Le Souef et al. 2013). Moreover, parrots may become more wary of humans following capture (Beissinger and Snyder 1992), increasing the difficulty of recovering archival tracking devices.

Here, we assess the feasibility of tracking parrots using GPS telemetry in field trials on wild-caught Kea (Nestor notabilis; Figure 1), an endangered montane parrot endemic to the South Island of New Zealand. Our aims were to evaluate: (1) the effects of the GPS loggers on the behavior and physical condition of the study subjects; (2) the extent of the damage caused to the tracking gear; (3) the loggers' operational performance; and (4) the quality of the resulting data. Our study is the first reported use of animal-borne GPS telemetry for parrots; as such, it offers crucial insights into the application of this tracking technology for the study of the ecology, behavior, conservation, an