TAKOMA PARK, Md. — (AP) — A plump robin carrying a tiny metallic backpack with an antenna hops round a suburban yard in Takoma Park, then plucks a cicada from the bottom for a snack.
Ecologist Emily Williams watches via binoculars from behind a bush. On this clear spring day, she’s snooping on his courting life. “Now I’m watching to see whether he’s found a mate,” she stated, scrutinizing his interactions with one other robin in a close-by tree.
Once the bird strikes on at season’s finish, she’ll depend on the backpack to beam frequent location knowledge to the Argos satellite tv for pc, then again to Williams’ laptop computer, to observe it.
The objective is to unravel why some American robins migrate lengthy distances, however others don’t. With extra exact details about nesting success and situations in breeding and wintering grounds, “we should be able to tell the relative roles of genetics versus the environment in shaping why birds migrate,” stated Williams, who relies at Georgetown University.
Putting beacons on birds is just not novel. But a brand new antenna on the International Space Station and receptors on the Argos satellite tv for pc, plus the shrinking dimension of monitoring chips and batteries, are permitting scientists to remotely monitor songbird actions in a lot higher element than ever earlier than.
“We’re in a sort of golden age for bird research,” stated Adriaan Dokter, an ecologist at Cornell University who is just not immediately concerned with Williams’ research. “It’s pretty amazing that we can satellite-track a robin with smaller and smaller chips. Ten years ago, that was unthinkable.”
The system this robin is carrying may give exact places, inside about 30 ft (about 10 meters), as an alternative of round 125 miles (200 kilometers) for earlier generations of tags.
That means Williams can inform not solely whether or not the bird remains to be within the metropolis, however on which avenue or yard. Or whether or not it’s flown from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to land on the White House garden.
A second new tag, for under the heaviest robins, consists of an accelerometer to present details about the bird’s actions; future variations might also measure humidity and barometric stress. These Icarus tags work with a brand new antenna on the International Space Station.
That antenna was first turned on about two years in the past, “but there were some glitches with the power-supply and the computer, so we had to bring it down again with a Russian rocket, then transport it from Moscow to Germany to fix it,” stated Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, whose scientific team is honing the expertise. After “the usual troubleshooting for space science,” the antenna was turned again on this spring.
As researchers deploy precision tags, Wikelski envisions the event 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 brilliant chirp a harbinger of spring. Yet its migratory habits stay a bit mysterious to scientists.
“It’s astounding how little we know about some of the most common songbirds,” stated 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.”
An earlier research Williams labored on confirmed some robins are long-distance migrants — flying greater than 2,780 miles (4,480 km) between their breeding space in Alaska and winter grounds in Texas — whereas others hop round a single yard a lot of the yr.
What elements drive some robins to migrate, whereas others don’t? Does it have to do with obtainable meals, temperature fluctuations or success in mating and rearing chicks?
Williams hopes extra detailed knowledge from satellite tv for pc tags, mixed with information of nesting success, will present insights, and he or she’s working with companions who’re tagging robins in Alaska, Indiana and Florida for a three-year research.
Scientists have beforehand put GPS-tracking units on bigger raptors, however the expertise has solely just lately grow to be small and light-weight sufficient for some songbirds. Tracking units should be lower than 5% of the animal’s weight to keep away from encumbering them.
In a Silver Spring, Maryland, yard, Williams has unfurled nylon nets between tall aluminum poles. When a robin flies into the online, 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. This one is about 80 grams, just over the threshold for wearing the penny-sized Argos satellite tag.
Williams 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.
When she opens her hand, the robin hops to the ground, then takes a few steps under a pink azalea shrub before flying 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.
Wilkeski 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,” stated Ben Freeman, a biologist on the Biodiversity Research Centre on the University of British Columbia. Better details 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 rainforests in Brazil, or is it what people are doing in their backyards here in the U.S.?”
Follow Christina Larson on Twitter:@larsonchristina
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