‘Magic of nature’: Disney’s smart birdhouses reveal the secret lives of purple martins

| Equipo Microsoft Latinx

Meet the purple martins, a special community of hundreds of unique birds that reside in cozy birdhouses made just for them across the Walt Disney World resort.

Smart bird condo

The purple martins reside in a small portion of a colony of nests within smart birdhouses – gourd-shaped enclosures outfitted by Disney and Microsoft with environmental sensors and HD cameras. They are the subjects of a new study that’s opening a window on the secret lives of purple martins – the largest members of the swallow family in North America and a species in decline.

To conservationists, purple martins serve as ambassadors for the majesty of migratory birds and provide clues about what we can do to help protect them.

“Purple martins are amazing, so acrobatic and agile,” says Dr. Jason Fischer, conservation program manager for Disney. “They are only 8 inches long but that doesn’t hold them back from flying over 6,000 miles from the Brazilian Amazon to Walt Disney World and back every year.

Since 1966, the estimated count of purple martins in North America has cumulatively fallen by nearly 40 percent, according to Cornell University. Worse, many types of migratory birds are waning in number.

Those trend lines helped to galvanize the purple martin project. It became part of ongoing collaborations between Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment team and global nonprofits striving to save imperiled wildlife, Fischer says.

Garden at Disney

To learn more about the species and inspire guests to want to help them, the team first sought to answer some fundamental questions. What does it take to be a great purple martin parent? How do purple martin chicks learn what being a purple martin is all about? And how can they inspire Disney guests to be equally as enthralled by these birds?

They hatched a game plan. They would watch the purple martins as they raised their families. They had one big advantage in that pursuit: Purple martins prefer to nest in custom made bird houses.

Smart birdhouses

To learn more about the inner lives of purple martins in their birdhouses, Disney Emerging Technologies collaborated with Microsoft.

Together, this team built the first smart birdhouses for purple martins. These smart houses were added to a colony of gourd-shaped birdhouses mounted on a tall pole (nicknamed a “bird resort” by Disney conservationists). There are 11 purple martin resorts located at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

The birdhouses combine the power of the intelligent cloud with the intelligent “edge” – in this case, the gourds – using computer vision, Microsoft Research’s embedded learning library and Azure IoT Edge to study the Martin family and send scientists fresh insights on their nesting behaviors.

All of that tech must withstand the Florida sun, humidity and rain – and not impact the birds and their family lives. To accomplish that, they equipped each sensor array with a noiseless fan. They also ran regular temperature tests on the cameras and other electronics gear to show that the tech was doing its job without being disruptive.

Scientists now have a window into the secret lives of purple martin families, including chicks hatching and interacting with their parents.

Cameras affixed near the nests and on the birdhouse porches offered high-def views of chicks hatching from their eggs, and parents nurturing the offspring. The sensors, meanwhile, tracked temperature, humidity and air pressure throughout the nesting season – and recorded each time a parent entered or left the house.

The smart birdhouses joined an existing, larger network of purple martin dwellings throughout the Walt Disney World Resort. Established for the study and conservation of the species, the community has provided homes for purple martin families for the past 20 years. It now consists of more than 170 nests each year.

Purple Martins at Disney

“It has been an eye-opening experience to see how much we can learn about these birds, thanks to these new technologies,” Fischer says.

Next, Disney researchers hope to partner with Microsoft to improve and deploy more smart houses to discern similarities and differences among different purple martin families.

(All images courtesy of Disney.)

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