TAKOMA PARK, Md. (AP) – A plump robin wearing a tiny metal backpack with an antenna hops through a suburban courtyard in Takoma Park, then plucks a cicada from the ground for a snack.

Ecologist Emily Williams observes through binoculars behind a bush. She’s sniffing his dating life on this clear spring day. “Now I’m watching to see if he’s found a partner,” she said, examining his interactions with another robin in a nearby tree.

Once the bird moves on at the end of the season, it relies on the backpack to send frequent location data to the Argos satellite and then back to Williams’ laptop for tracking.

Get top stories in your inbox.

Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that affects you, Canada and the world. Do not miss.

The goal is to find out why some American robins migrate long distances while others don’t. With more detailed information about nesting success and nesting conditions in breeding and wintering areas, “we should be able to determine the relative role of genetics versus the environment in shaping bird migration,” said Williams of Georgetown University.

Putting beacons on birds is not new. But a new antenna on the International Space Station and receptors on the Argos satellite, as well as the ever-shrinking tracking chips and batteries, allow scientists to remotely monitor the movements of songbirds in much more detail than ever before.

“We are in some sort of golden age for avian research,” said Adriaan Dokter, an ecologist at Cornell University who was not directly involved in Williams’ study. “It’s pretty amazing that we can satellite a robin with increasingly smaller chips. That was unthinkable ten years ago. “

The device this robin wears can give accurate locations within about 30 feet (about 10 meters), instead of about 125 miles (200 kilometers) for previous generations of tags.

With this, Williams can not only recognize whether the bird is still in the city, but also on which street or in the backyard. Or whether it will be flown out of the suburbs of Washington DC to land on the White House lawn.

A second new day, for the heaviest robins only, includes an accelerometer that provides information about the bird’s movements; future versions can also measure humidity and air pressure. These Icarus tags work with a new antenna on the International Space Station.

The international space station’s new antenna helps track down birds equipped with tiny backpacks carrying transmitters. #Birds #migration #science

This antenna was turned on for the first time about two years ago, “but there have been some breakdowns with the power supply and the computer, so we had to shoot it down again with a Russian missile and then transport it from Moscow to Germany to be repaired. “, Said Martin Wikelski, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior, of its scientific team refines the technology. After “the usual troubleshooting for space exploration”, the antenna was switched on again this spring.

As researchers deploy precision tags, Wikelski envisions the development of an “Internet of Animals” – a collection of sensors around the world that will give us a better picture of the movement of life on the planet.

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

“It’s amazing how little we know about some of the most common songbirds,” says Ken Rosenberg, conservationist at Cornell University. “We have a general idea of ​​migration, a range map, but that’s really just a rough impression.”

A previous study Williams worked on showed that some robins are long-distance migrants – they fly more than 4,480 km between their breeding grounds in Alaska and winter areas in Texas – while others hop around in a single backyard for most of the year.

What factors induce some robins to migrate and others not? Does it have anything to do with food availability, 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 insight, and she is working with partners tagging robins in Alaska, Indiana and Florida for a three-year study.

Scientists have equipped larger birds of prey with GPS tracking devices, but the technology has only recently become small and light enough for some songbirds. Tracking devices must make up less than 5% of the animal’s weight to avoid exposure.

In a yard in Silver Spring, Maryland, Williams unfolded nylon nets between tall aluminum poles. When a robin flies into the net, it gently untangles the bird. Then she holds it in a “bander grip” – with her index and middle fingers loosely on either side of the bird’s neck and two other fingers around its body.

On a tarp, she measures the robin’s beak length, cuts a toenail, and plucks a tail feather to assess general health.

Then she weighs the bird in a small cup on a scale. This weighs around 80 grams and is thus just above the threshold for carrying the pixel-sized Argos satellite tag.

Williams makes a makeshift saddle with a see-through decorative cord that is looped around each leg of the bird. Then she pulls the string tight so that the label is firmly attached to the bird’s back.

When she opens her hand, the robin hops to the ground, then takes a few steps under a pink azalea before it flies away.

In addition to providing very accurate locations, the satellite tags also transmit data that can be remotely downloaded to Williams’ laptop. Older tag data could not be retrieved unless the same bird was caught again the following year – a difficult and unsafe task.

Wilkeski hopes the new technology will help scientists better understand the threats to birds and other living things from habitat loss, pollution and climate change.

“It’s detective work to find out why a population is declining,” says Ben Freeman, a biologist at the University of British Columbia’s Biodiversity Research Center. Better information on migration corridors “will help us look in the right places”.

A 2019 study Co-written by Cornell’s Rosenberg, showed that the wild bird population in North America has declined by nearly 30%, or 3 billion, since 1970.

He said tracking birds will help explain why: “Where in their annual cycle are migratory birds most threatened? Is it exposure to pesticides in Mexico, deforestation of rainforests in Brazil, or is it what people here in the US do in their backyards? “


The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.