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 relationship life. “Now I am watching to see whether or not he is discovered a mate,” she mentioned, scrutinizing his interactions with one other robin in a close-by tree.
As soon as the hen 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 trace 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 circumstances in breeding and wintering grounds, “we should always be capable to inform the relative roles of genetics versus the atmosphere in shaping why birds migrate,” mentioned Williams, who is predicated at Georgetown College.
Placing beacons on birds is just not novel. However a brand new antenna on the Worldwide House Station and receptors on the Argos satellite tv for pc, plus the shrinking measurement of monitoring chips and batteries, are permitting scientists to remotely monitor songbird actions in a lot larger element than ever earlier than.
“We’re in a form of golden age for hen analysis,” mentioned Adriaan Dokter, an ecologist at Cornell College who is just not immediately concerned with Williams’ research. “It is fairly superb that we will satellite-track a robin with smaller and smaller chips. Ten years in the past, that was unthinkable.”
The system this robin is carrying can provide exact areas, inside about 30 ft (about 10 meters), as a substitute of round 125 miles (200 kilometers) for earlier generations of tags.
Which means Williams can inform not solely whether or not the hen remains to be within the metropolis, however on which road or yard. Or whether or not it is flown from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to land on the White Home garden.
A second new tag, for less than the heaviest robins, contains an accelerometer to supply details about the hen’s actions; future variations might also measure humidity and barometric strain. These Icarus tags work with a brand new antenna on the Worldwide House Station.
That antenna was first turned on about two years in the past, “however there have been some glitches with the power-supply and the pc, so we needed to convey it down once more with a Russian rocket, then transport it from Moscow to Germany to repair it,” mentioned Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Habits, whose scientific crew is honing the expertise. After “the standard troubleshooting for house science,” the antenna was turned again on this spring.
As researchers deploy precision tags, Wikelski envisions the event of “an ‘Web of animals’—a group of sensors world wide giving us a greater image of the motion of life on the planet.”
The American robin is an iconic songbird in North America, its brilliant chirp a harbinger of spring. But its migratory habits stay a bit mysterious to scientists.
“It is astounding how little we find out about a few of the commonest songbirds,” mentioned Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at Cornell College. “Now we have a basic thought of migration, a spread map, however that is actually only 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 components drive some robins emigrate, whereas others do not? Does it need to do with accessible 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 she or he’s working with companions who’re tagging robins in Alaska, Indiana and Florida for a three-year research.
Scientists have beforehand put GPS-tracking gadgets on bigger raptors, however the expertise has solely not too long ago grow to be small and light-weight sufficient for some songbirds. Monitoring gadgets 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 hen. Then she holds it in a “bander’s grip”—together with her forefinger and center finger loosely on both facet of the hen’s neck, and one other two fingers round its physique.
On a tarp, she measures the robin’s beak size, takes a toenail clipping and plucks a tail feather to gauge general well being.
Then she weighs the hen in a small cup on a scale. This one is about 80 grams, simply over the edge for carrying the penny-sized Argos satellite tv for pc tag.
Williams fashions a makeshift saddle with clear jewellery wire looped round every of the hen’s legs. She then tightens the wire so the tag sits firmly on the hen’s again.
When she opens her hand, the robin hops to the bottom, then takes a couple of steps underneath a pink azalea shrub earlier than flying off.
Along with offering very exact areas, the satellite tv for pc tags transmit knowledge that may be downloaded from afar onto Williams’ laptop computer. The info on older tags could not be retrieved except the identical hen was recaptured the next yr—a tough and unsure activity.
Wilkeski hopes the brand new expertise will assist scientists higher perceive threats birds and different creatures face from habitat loss, air pollution and local weather change.
“It’s detective work to attempt to determine why a inhabitants is declining,” mentioned Ben Freeman, a biologist on the Biodiversity Analysis Centre on the College of British Columbia. Higher details about migration corridors “will assist us look in the appropriate locations.”
A 2019 research co-written by Cornell’s Rosenberg confirmed that North America’s inhabitants of untamed birds declined by practically 30%, or 3 billion, since 1970.
He mentioned monitoring birds will assist clarify why: “The place of their annual cycles do migratory birds face the best threats? Is it publicity to pesticides in Mexico, the clearing of rainforests in Brazil, or is it what individuals are doing of their backyards right here within the U.S.?”
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Scientists hail golden age to hint hen migration with tech (2021, June 10)
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