Questions on Tracking Bird Migration

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Where did this Chestnut-sided Warbler migrate from?

Back in 1965, an ornithologist from the Illinois Natural History Survey, Richard Graber, pioneered a new way to track migrating birds. His method involved placing a small radio transmitter on the back of a Gray-cheeked Thrush, their size more able to carry the extra weight than other songbirds. Graber followed the bird by airplane, tracking it across many miles but never discovered where the bird ended up.

After abandoning the method, Graber asked his friend Bill Cochran to continue with the project. From 1965 to 2004, Cochran chased migrating birds, this time from a car, over 150,000 miles (Living Bird, Spring 2006). The project collected tons of valuable data but was difficult and time consuming (not to mention costly).

Radio tracking is getting better and better and not too far in the future, we are sure there will be new ways to track bird migration. Imagine this: a bird is banded in High Island, Texas and equiped with a tracking device. The bird can be tracked in real time and accessed by computer to determine when and where it is. Maybe the bird stopped over in a city park in St. Louis or was blown of course by a storm on the great plains. The possibilities are virtually endless.

While this might sound impossible, some of the equipment is already in place. Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) are being used to track products for inventory purposes. The tags can be made small enough to fit on termites and thus would have little effect on even some of the smallest birds (although that would need to be tested first). The products are costly but could provide much better results.

But how would this type of tracking affect birding? Say birders had access to a massive database of birds that have been equipped with tracking devices. Key in a bird you need for your lifelist and up comes a map plotting the path. There’s one at a nearby park right now! Would this harm birding or help it? Would lifelists be abandoned or increase rapidly? Would rare birds become less of a big deal or easier and more fun to find? Would big days be cheapened, big years a thing of the past?

What about conservation? Wouldn’t it be spectacular to know exactly where the birds are? No more guessing what routes birds take during migration. As long as the bird is caught and equipped with a way to track it, new information could be collected daily. Ornithologists (and birders) could discover bird locations and even deceased birds to get accurate knowledge of lifespans, nesting cycles, and more. Suddenly bird banding wouldn’t be about retrapping birds but catching them once and then monitoring them.

This may be futuristic or revolutionary… what are your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Questions on Tracking Bird Migration

  1. Real soon when the GPS technology goes even smaller, maybe someone will tag (lets say a BWT) with a little button sized GPS transmiter on one of their legs and track a whole bunch of the birds…I mean, we are seeing it on the movies and such with the little James Bond like spy gadgety things…so why not aplly it on Avian conservation when the technology comes available for the masses…..I sure would like to tag some transmitters on warblers! especially the Chesnut Sided (My favorite bird)
    Thnx!

  2. I came up with the same idea. I’m more into purple martins so I thought if one could be “banded” with a gps receiver, it would be perfect. Note I said “receiver,” not “transmitter.” My thought was to have the device write gps coordinates and a time stamp onto on board memory. Because martins (almost always) return to the same house each summer, when it returned the next summer, it could be captured and the memory uploaded. Another problem would be power. Of course a receiver takes far less energy than a transmitter, you would still need some kind of energy. Maybe a very small battery would be light enough and strong enough to handle the job if, at the same time, the ciruitry was set to turn on once or twice per day for, say, five minutes. Or, I even thought about a tiny solar panel that could gather the miniscule amount of power needed for a once/day position fix. Affixed to a leg, of course, it would only gather a little power early or late in the day and none at all when the bird was in flight because they “retract” their landing gear. These are my thoughts but how to perfect and implement such ideas will be the hard part. Thoughts? Lee LeeSail@aol.com

  3. I am currently developing a GPS logger for Birds. Target weight is about 5 grams. However, I think it will be still slightly heavy for these birds. From http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gray-cheeked_Thrush/lifehistory
    we can see that the bird weighs about 26-30grams. so 5grams will be about 17-18% of the body weight. Biologists regard 3% of body weight as the maximum ethical equipment weight when attaching long term devices to animals. Thats about 0.9 grams. GPS/battery/antenna technology has some time to go before this sort of weight can be achieved.

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