Remarkable Aussie invention counts 500,000 flamingos in just minutes

Flamingos are notoriously hard to count, so the last time anyone had tried to count the flock on this popular lake had been a decade ago.

Two images of lesser flamingos in Botswana from above.
How many flamingos can you count in 30 seconds? Source: Getty

Counting a small crowd of people in a room is hard enough. So imagine trying to estimate how many uniformly coloured flamingos had descended on a lake.

Because up to half a million birds will routinely congregate together, counting them from the ground was a near-impossible task. Footage taken by drones improved accuracy, but it could take hours to analyse a single frame — now that’s about to change.

“I tried manually counting 10 images myself and that took me a few hours. But that’s just 10 images and there are thousands of images in our data sets,” University of NSW researcher Sophie Yang told Yahoo News.

“But now a full collage of images would take maybe less than 20 minutes.”

The key to this remarkable time-saving innovation was getting machines to do the work instead. Yang’s team collected 3,715 photographs shot from a plane soaring at speeds of up to 195 kilometres per hour, at heights of 50 to 600 metres. They then taught a computer to recognise each of the pink dots as a flamingo and ignore any blurring caused by flight turbulence.

A flamingo on a lake in Cape Town, South Africa.
Flamingos in Africa are facing a range of climactic and environmental threats. Source: Richard Kingsford/UNSW Sydney

This new artificial intelligence advancement quickly produced an estimate of 532,197 flamingos congregating on the northern basin of Sua Pan in Botswana. Because the task of counting them had been so painstaking, their count was the first to be completed in a decade.

Yang reflected on the moment her computer first started accurately counting the birds on Tuesday, after her research paper was published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

“It was exhilarating, just a huge amount of work. And to have like the accuracy of the machine learning base so high, it's definitely very satisfying.

Having accurate population estimates has become increasingly important, particularly with the lesser flamingo species because it’s now listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List of species facing extinction. To protect it from further declines it’s essential to regularly track how pollution, habitat destruction, and changes to the climate are impacting numbers.

The Sua Pan where the flamingos were filmed is one of the lesser flamingo’s six major breeding sites.

For the birds to successfully reproduce they require the weather conditions to be just right. To protect the chicks from predators, the right amount of flooding is needed so that small island refuges are created.

Researchers are particularly concerned there are not enough protections in place to prevent tourism developments and dam building from affecting their habitat.

“These fragile environments must be protected if we are to conserve these incredible birds, which are an important part of these rare ecosystems and a major tourist attraction,” UNSW Professor Richard Kingsford said.