Can Radar Detect Birds?

Radar is an object detection system that uses radio waves to determine the range, altitude, direction, or speed of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships, spacecraft, missiles, weather formations, and even animals. Ones that fly and are on the ground.

Radar works by sending out a pulse of radio waves and then measuring the time it takes for the waves to bounce back off of an object. The distance to the object can be calculated based on the speed of the waves and the time it takes for them to return.

Do Birds Show Up on Radar?

The use of radar ornithology to study migratory birds has had a significant impact on their conservation. Radar technology has been used extensively to track bird movements in the air since the early 1950s in Britain and the mid-1960s in the United States. Long-range weather radars have been utilized to follow the seasonal migrations and roosting departures of birds since the early 1950s in Britain and 1960s in the United States.

Fisherman have been using boat radar for locating birds at sea, groups of birds can be a indication of fish nearby. Various marine radar manufactures have setting referred to as “Bird Mode” to help with finding where birds are.

Small radar units used to monitor bird movements at renewable energy sites have been placed throughout the world in an effort to minimize bird injury from collisions with wind turbines, powerlines and towers, as well as incineration at solar energy plants. The radars have also been placed at many airports to monitor the movement of birds that pose a collision risk with aircrafts.

Early use of radar was to address specific high risk hazards at a few military bases and was effective only for detection of proximate aggregations of large birds. As at one early installation, RAF Kinloss in Scotland UK, the equipment was mobile and mainly used to monitor the approach to the runway in use. Since these pioneering applications, there have been big improvements in real-time detection capability. Real-time bird radar is still mainly used in military applications but is beginning to be deployed at civil airports where particular bird hazards have been identified.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was the first civil airport to deploy real time bird tracking radar (in January 2010). The system detects individual birds from small sparrows to large Canada Geese up to approximately two miles away. The bird activity is then displayed in real time on a Google Earth map. Airport officials can take these maps with them on a laptop.

Real-time bird radar is mostly used for military applications but is being rolled out to civil airports where high hazards of birds have been reported. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was among the first to utilize real-time bird tracking radar systems.

The system can detect single birds from the small sparrow up to a large Canadian Goose from about 2 miles away. This activity is displayed real-time on a Google Earth style map.

Many of the small, mobile radars available are adapted marine navigation radars originally designed to detect X-band (3-cm) or S-band (10=cm) wavelengths. However, they have been modified specifically to not only pick up on individual birds and flocks, but also return data from insects, rain, ground objects and rough seas that makes it difficult to determine if an echo is coming from a bird or something else.

Trying to get rid of echoes that aren’t birds may also do away with echoes coming from birds. Radars that have longer wavelengths (L-band, 15 cm to 30 cm) don’t detect precipitation as well, but wouldn’t be able to detect small animals like birds or insects very well.

What Do Birds Look Like on a Radar?

Radar, which stands for RAdio Detection And Ranging, was initially used prior to World War II to detect aircraft. However, since the invention of radar surveillance, birds have been spotted on radar images; the term “angels” was originally used to describe these bird-shaped radar signals, before solid ground-truthing verified them as such.

Advances in technology over the last few decades have given radars new abilities, like detecting density, location, direction, and speed of biological targets. This is particularly useful for studying Aeroecology, because now we can identify animals like birds, insects, and bats.

Birds take to the air for nocturnal migration around 30-45 minutes after sunset. They generally rise above 1000-3000m above ground level (smaller birds are typically found in the lower part of this range, while larger species are located higher up).

As birds fly across the continental US, they are interacting with pulses of energy emitted by radar. The pulses of energy that reflect off of birds closer to the radar appear lower in altitude on the screen, meaning that those reflections will eventually pass through and out of the layer depicting bird migration.

The radar’s configuration, paired with the way birds move lower in the atmosphere, results in bird displays that look circular like halos or donuts around the station on reflectivity images.

Do Other Animals Show Up on Radar?

Yes, radar systems have been known to detect not only deer, but rabbits, foxes, and birds at secure sites such as airports. In some cases, these radar systems are used solely for wildlife detection.

To avoid collisions, radar sensors have been positioned to identify and track these various wild animals. When a creature is detected approaching the street, a warning light alerts drivers to the impending danger.


Radar systems have been used for years to detect the presence of birds, and more recently, other animals. These systems help us to avoid collisions and other accidents, and also to study the movements of different species, big and small. As technology advances, we will likely find new and improved ways to use radar for these purposes to help protect and learn more about our animal friends.

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