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Tiny chips, batteries aid in tracking songbirds

by CHRISTINA LARSON THE ASSOCIATED PRES | June 11, 2021 at 3:54 a.m.
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams gently lowers an American robin into a plastic cup on a scale as she gathers data and fits the bird with an Argos satellite tag, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. Tracking devices must be less than 5% of the animal’s weight to avoid encumbering them. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

TAKOMA PARK, Md. -- Putting beacons on birds is not novel. But a new antenna on the International Space Station and receptors on the Argos satellite, plus the shrinking size of tracking chips and batteries, are allowing scientists to remotely monitor songbird movements in much greater detail than ever before.

"We're in a sort of golden age for bird research," said Adriaan Dokter, an ecologist at Cornell University. "It's pretty amazing that we can satellite-track a robin with smaller and smaller chips. Ten years ago, that was unthinkable."

As researchers deploy precision tags, Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, envisions the development of "an 'Internet of animals' -- a collection of sensors around the world giving us a better picture of the movement of life on the planet."

The American robin is an iconic songbird in North America, its bright chirp a harbinger of spring. Yet its migratory habits remain a bit mysterious to scientists.

"It's astounding how little we know about some of the most common songbirds," said Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at Cornell University. "We have a general idea of migration, a range map, but that's really just a broad impression."

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An earlier study that ecologist Emily Williams worked on showed some robins are long-distance migrants -- flying more than 2,780 miles between their breeding area in Alaska and winter grounds in Texas -- while others hop around a single backyard most of the year.

What factors drive some robins to migrate, while others don't? Does it have to do with available food, temperature fluctuations or success in mating and rearing chicks?

Williams hopes more detailed data from satellite tags, combined with records of nesting success, will provide insights, and she's working with partners who are tagging robins in Alaska, Indiana and Florida for a three-year study.

Scientists have previously put GPS-tracking devices on larger raptors, but the technology has only recently become small and light enough for some songbirds. Tracking devices must be less than 5% of the animal's weight to avoid encumbering them.

In a Silver Spring, Md., yard, Williams has unfurled nylon nets between tall aluminum poles. When a robin flies into the net, she delicately untangles the bird. Then she holds it in a "bander's grip" -- with her forefinger and middle finger loosely on either side of the bird's neck, and another two fingers around its body.

On a tarp, she measures the robin's beak length, takes a toenail clipping and plucks a tail feather to gauge overall health.

Then she weighs the bird in a small cup on a scale and fashions a makeshift saddle with clear jewelry cord looped around each of the bird's legs. She then tightens the cord so the tag sits firmly on the bird's back, and then she lets it fly off.

In addition to providing very precise locations, the satellite tags transmit data that can be downloaded from afar onto Williams' laptop. The data on older tags couldn't be retrieved unless the same bird was recaptured the following year -- a difficult and uncertain task.

Wikelski hopes the new technology will help scientists better understand threats birds and other creatures face from habitat loss, pollution and climate change.

"It is detective work to try to figure out why a population is declining," said Ben Freeman, a biologist at the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia. Better information about migration corridors "will help us look in the right places."

A 2019 study co-written by Cornell's Rosenberg showed that North America's population of wild birds declined by nearly 30%, or 3 billion, since 1970.

He said tracking birds will help explain why: "Where in their annual cycles do migratory birds face the greatest threats? Is it exposure to pesticides in Mexico, the clearing of rain forests in Brazil or is it what people are doing in their backyards here in the U.S.?"

Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams prepares bird netting in the hope of catching American robins, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in a backyard in Silver Springs, Md. Using satellite tracking tags, the goal is to unravel why some American robins migrate long distances, but others do not. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams prepares bird netting in the hope of catching American robins, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in a backyard in Silver Springs, Md. Using satellite tracking tags, the goal is to unravel why some American robins migrate long distances, but others do not. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams, right, and a volunteer watch bird netting with binoculars from distance for American robins, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Cheverly, Md. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams, right, and a volunteer watch bird netting with binoculars from distance for American robins, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Cheverly, Md. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams sets up a sidewalk work station Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Cheverly, Md., as she prepares to net and place Argos satellite tags on America robins. Williams hopes more detailed data from the tags, combined with records of nesting success, will provide insights, and she's working with partners who are tagging robins in Alaska, Indiana and Florida for a three-year study. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams sets up a sidewalk work station Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Cheverly, Md., as she prepares to net and place Argos satellite tags on America robins. Williams hopes more detailed data from the tags, combined with records of nesting success, will provide insights, and she's working with partners who are tagging robins in Alaska, Indiana and Florida for a three-year study. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
An American robin sits in a nylon net at sunrise, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams uses nets to catch robins and possibly fit them with an Argos satellite tag. “It’s astounding how little we know about some of the most common songbirds,” said Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at Cornell University. “We have a general idea of migration, a range map, but that’s really just a broad impression.” (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
An American robin sits in a nylon net at sunrise, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams uses nets to catch robins and possibly fit them with an Argos satellite tag. “It’s astounding how little we know about some of the most common songbirds,” said Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at Cornell University. “We have a general idea of migration, a range map, but that’s really just a broad impression.” (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams fits an Argos satellite tag to an American robin, like a backpack, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. The device can give precise locations, within about 30 feet (about 10 meters), instead of around 125 miles (200 kilometers) for previous generations of tags. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams fits an Argos satellite tag to an American robin, like a backpack, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. The device can give precise locations, within about 30 feet (about 10 meters), instead of around 125 miles (200 kilometers) for previous generations of tags. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams fits an Argos satellite tag to an American robin, like a backpack, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. Scientists have previously put GPS-tracking devices on larger raptors, but the technology has only recently become small and light enough for some songbirds. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams fits an Argos satellite tag to an American robin, like a backpack, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. Scientists have previously put GPS-tracking devices on larger raptors, but the technology has only recently become small and light enough for some songbirds. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams gently untangles an American robin from a nylon mist net Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. Williams is gathering data and samples to possibly fit the bird with a Argos satellite tag. The technology has only recently become small and light enough for some songbirds. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams gently untangles an American robin from a nylon mist net Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. Williams is gathering data and samples to possibly fit the bird with a Argos satellite tag. The technology has only recently become small and light enough for some songbirds. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams measures the beak of an American robin as she gathers data to possibly fit the bird with an Argos satellite tag, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. The American robin is an iconic songbird in North America, its bright chirp a harbinger of spring. Yet its migratory habits remain a bit mysterious to scientists. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams measures the beak of an American robin as she gathers data to possibly fit the bird with an Argos satellite tag, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md. The American robin is an iconic songbird in North America, its bright chirp a harbinger of spring. Yet its migratory habits remain a bit mysterious to scientists. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
The antenna of an Argos satellite tag extends past the tail feathers of a female American robin as she feeds a worm to her hungry nestlings on a front porch in Cheverly, Md., Sunday, May 9, 2021. A new antenna on the International Space Station and receptors on the Argos satellite, combined with the shrinking size of tracking chips and batteries, are allowing scientists to remotely monitor small animal and songbird movements in much greater detail than ever before. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
The antenna of an Argos satellite tag extends past the tail feathers of a female American robin as she feeds a worm to her hungry nestlings on a front porch in Cheverly, Md., Sunday, May 9, 2021. A new antenna on the International Space Station and receptors on the Argos satellite, combined with the shrinking size of tracking chips and batteries, are allowing scientists to remotely monitor small animal and songbird movements in much greater detail than ever before. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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