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Technology Gets Smaller, Tracking Birds Gets Easier

Some of the more amazing ornithological discoveries in recent years have been the result of tiny GPS packs strapped to the backs of migratory birds. It’s a simple technological innovation that has unlocked some of the basic questions about where do these things go and how to they get there. And more importantly from a conservation perspective, it makes clear the places where we need to focus our habitat protection intentions.

We’ve learned where Black Swifts go (flying around the Amazon Basin without stopping). We’ve learned how Sooty Shearwaters traverse the Pacific (a giant spectacular figure 8). We’ve learned how Arctic Terns go from the top of the world to the bottom and back again (they make a ton of stops along the way). Each one seemingly more remarkable then the last.

Just like the technology in our phones and computers, the technology that makes this visually stunning science possible is getting smaller. So small, in fact, that we can now start putting these gadgets on birds with ambitious migrations as small as warblers, shining a light on some of the most critical conservation needs in South America, Central American, and the Caribbean.

The next generation of trackers can weigh as little as 1 gram. Photo by Michael Hallworth.

The next generation of trackers can weigh as little as 1 gram. Photo by Michael Hallworth.

From an article at Smithsonian.com:

One major requirement is that the device had to be light enough, no more than five percent of the wearer’s body weight. Additionally, as they travel, birds put on extra fat and muscle on their chests, so it needed to accommodate these changes while allowing wearers to freely use their wings. Given these considerations, [Ontario based] Lotek [Wireless] developed the backpack, which is able to stay on the bird throughout its travels and is attached with a harness that doesn’t hurt the animal.

Recent work with Ovenbirds showed that even those captured from a apparently homogenous eastern United States population travel to different locations to overwinter. Ovenbirds captured in New Hampshire wintered on the island of Hispaniola, while those captured in Maryland spent the colder months in Florida and Cuba. The populations did not overlap.

Lightweight, miniature geolocaters certainly appear poised to play a huge role in wildlife biology in years to come, and I, for one, am excited to see what we learn and how it’s used to protect these critical areas for wintering birds.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
  • Ted Floyd

    Quick question, Nate. Are these in fact transmitters? (I.e., they’re sending out data?) Or are these geolocators? (I.e., they receive data, and then that data must be retrieved from recaptured birds?)

    Regardless, you rightly point out that these contraptions are revolutionizing our understanding and appreciation of avian migration. Paul Hess has had a lot of coverage in recent years in Birding, and his column in the forthcoming August 2014 issue reports exciting new discoveries for Ross’s Gulls and Blackpoll Warblers.

    • Geolocators, of course. My mistake for not being clear.

      Sent from my phone

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