Scientists turned a taxidermy bird into a robot on wheels, all for the sake of research. Biologist Gail Patricelli created what she calls the “fembots” to study the mating habits of the threatened sage grouse. Apparently, it’s not very hard to entice male sage grouse to mate with a taxidermy birdbot.
Male sage grouse already have a low bar for mating partners. “When there are no hens around, they often try to mate with dry cow pies,” Patricelli told . Patricelli’s fembots are outfitted with off-roading tires, and “can move around and peck on the ground and look uninterested in mating anytime soon, or they can remain more upright looking back and forth looking like they're getting closer to being ready to mate.”
Manipulating the fembots' apparent mating interest is key to Patricelli's research, which is based on decision making in economic theory. Patricelli sends out one robot that looks uninterested in the male to get the male to start courting, then sends out a second hen (an “outside option” in economics) to explore whether the male sticks with courting the original robot, or switches to a second option. Patricelli's hypothesis is that the male grouse will only make the switch if the second hen appears more valuable, and she can test that by changing how much interest it exhibits in its behavior.
Patricelli’s research goes beyond courtship dynamics: it's also about how environmental changes affects the increasingly threatened species. Sage grouse numbers have dropped from 16 million to around 200,000 million, thanks to habitat degradation, and the environmental loss and noise pollution from human development. Aside from getting male grouse’s attention on taxidermy bird girlfriends, Patricelli’s study may help scientists understand where the birds can be most comfortable, and help future human managers create laws that will let the birds roam undisturbed.