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?