TAKOMA PARK, Md. — A plump robin carrying a tiny steel backpack with an antenna hops round a suburban yard in Takoma Park, then plucks a cicada for a snack.
From behind a bush, ecologist Emily Williams watches by binoculars.
“I’m watching to see whether or not he’s discovered a mate,” Williams says, scrutinizing his interactions with a robin in a close-by tree.
As soon as the chook 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 aim 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 have the option to inform the relative roles of genetics versus the setting in shaping why birds migrate,” says Williams, a Georgetown College researcher.
Placing beacons on birds isn’t novel. However a brand new antenna on the International Space Station and receptors on the Argos satellite tv for pc, together with the shrinking measurement of monitoring chips and batteries, now let scientists remotely monitor songbird actions in larger element than ever.
“We’re in a kind of golden age for chook research,” says Adriaan Dokter, a Cornell College ecologist. “It’s fairly superb that we are able to satellite-track a robin with smaller and smaller chips. Ten years in the past, that was unthinkable.”
The gadget this robin is carrying may give exact areas, inside about 30 toes, as an alternative of about 125 miles for earlier generations of tags.
Meaning Williams can inform not solely whether or not the chook continues to be within the metropolis however on which road or yard. Or whether or not it’s flown from right here within the Washington, D.C., suburbs to land on the White Home garden.
A second new tag, for less than the heaviest robins, consists of an accelerometer to present details about the chook’s actions. Future variations may additionally measure humidity and barometric stress.
These Icarus tags work with a brand new antenna on the International Space Station. The 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 had to carry it down once more with a Russian rocket, then transport it from Moscow to Germany to repair it,” says Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Habits, whose scientific staff is honing the know-how. After “the same old 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 set of sensors world wide giving us a greater image of the motion of life on the planet.”
The American robin is an iconic songbird, its vivid chirp a harbinger of spring. But its migratory habits stay a bit mysterious.
“It’s astounding how little we learn about a number of the most typical songbirds,” says Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at Cornell College. “We’ve got a common thought of migration, a variety map. However that’s actually only a broad impression.”
An earlier research Williams labored on confirmed some robins are long-distance migrants — flying greater than 2,780 miles 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 to migrate, whereas others don’t? Does it have 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 data of nesting success, will present insights. She’s working with companions who’re tagging robins in Alaska, Indiana and Florida for a three-year research.
Scientists beforehand put GPS-tracking gadgets on bigger raptors. However the know-how solely not too long ago turned small and lightweight sufficient for some songbirds. Monitoring gadgets have to 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 chook, then holds it in a “bander’s grip” — her forefinger and center finger loosely on both facet of the chook’s neck, 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 well being.
Then, she weighs the chook 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 chook’s legs and tightens the wire so the tag sits firmly on the chook’s again.
When she opens her hand, the robin hops to the bottom, then flies off.
In addition to offering 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 couldn’t be retrieved until the identical chook was recaptured the next yr — a troublesome and unsure process.
Wikelski hopes the brand new know-how 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,” says Ben Freeman, a biologist on the Biodiversity Research 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 Rosenberg confirmed that North America’s inhabitants of untamed birds declined by almost 30%, or 3 billion, since 1970. He says 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.?”