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Scientists hail golden Era to Follow bird migration with Technology

1of21The 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…


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.
1of21The antenna of an Argos satellite tag extends beyond the tail feathers of a female American robin as she feeds a worm for her hungry nestlings onto 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 monitor little animal and songbird movements in much greater detail than previously. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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.
two of21An American robin sits in a nylon internet at sunrise, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md.. Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams uses nets to capture robins and possibly fit them with an Argos satellite label. “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.” Carolyn Kaster/AP
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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.
4of21Avian 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 using a Argos satellite label. The technology has only recently become light and small enough for a few songbirds. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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.
5of21Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams softly reduces an American robin to a plastic cup on a scale as she collects data and fits the bird with an Argos satellite tag, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md.. Tracking devices have to be less than 5 percent of the animal’s weight to avoid encumbering them. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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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.
7of21Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams measures the beak of an American robin as she gathers data to possibly match the bird with an Argos satellite label, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md.. The American robin is an iconic songbird in North America, its glowing chirp a harbinger of spring. Nevertheless its migratory habits stay a bit mysterious to scientists. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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.
8of21Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams matches an Argos satellite tag to an American robin, like a backpack, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md.. Scientists have put GPS-tracking apparatus on bigger raptors, however, the technology has only recently become light and small enough for a few songbirds. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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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.
10of21Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams fits an Argos satellite label to an American robin, like a back pack, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Silver Spring, Md.. The apparatus can provide precise places, within approximately 30 feet (approximately 10 meters), instead of around 125 kilometers (200 km ) for preceding generations of labels. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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.
11of21Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams prepares bird netting in the expectation of grabbing American robins, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in a backyard in Silver Springs, Md.. Utilizing satellite tracking tags, the goal is to unravel why a few American robins migrate long distances, but others don’t. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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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.
13of21Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams, right, along with also a volunteer watch bird netting with binoculars from space for American robins, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Cheverly, Md.Carolyn Kaster/AP
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.
14of21Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams sets a sidewalk work channel Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Cheverly, Md., as she devotes to internet and place Argos satellite tags on America robins. Williams expects more detailed information from the labels, combined with documents of nesting success, provides insights, and she is working with partners who are tagging robins in Alaska, Indiana and Florida for a double-blind analysis. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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An Argos satellite tag is seen on the back of an American robin, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Silver Springs, Md. With more precise information about nesting success and conditions in breeding and wintering grounds,
16of21An Argos satellite label is observed on the back of a American robin, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Silver Springs, Md.. With more precise info regarding nesting success and conditions in breeding and wintering grounds,”we should be able to tell the relative roles of genetics versus the environment in shaping why birds migrate,” says avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams. Carolyn Kaster/AP
The antenna of an Argos satellite tag extends past the tail feathers of an American robin as it bobs its head down to feed on worms and insects on a lawn in Cheverly, Md., Sunday, May 9, 2021. 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.
17of21The antenna of an Argos satellite label extends past the tail feathers of an American robin as it bobs its head down to feed on rats and insects onto a yard in Cheverly, Md., Sunday, May 9, 2021. Placing beacons on birds is not novel. However a new antenna on the International Space Station and receptors on the Argos satellite, and the diminishing size of tracking batteries and chips, are allowing scientists to remotely monitor songbird moves in much more detail than ever before. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams releases an American robin, too light to be fitted with an Argos satellite tag, after gathering samples and data and applying bands, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Cheverly, 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.
19of21Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams releases an American robin, too light to be paired with an Argos satellite tag, after collecting samples and data and employing rings, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Cheverly, Md.. The American robin is an iconic songbird in North America, its bright chirp a harbinger of spring. Nevertheless its migratory habits stay a bit mysterious to scientists. Carolyn Kaster/AP
An antenna from an Argos satellite tag extends past the tail feathers of an American robin as it darts around a front lawn in Cheverly, Md., Sunday, May 9, 2021.
20of21An antenna from an Argos satellite label extends beyond the tail feathers of an American robin as it darts around front yard in Cheverly, Md., Sunday, May 9, 2021. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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TAKOMA PARK, Md. (AP) — A chubby robin wearing a very small metal backpack with a antenna hops around a suburban yard in Takoma Park, then plucks a cicada in the floor for a snack.

Ecologist Emily Williams watches from behind a bush. With this clear spring day, she’s snooping on his dating life. “Now I’m watching to see whether he’s found a mate,” she said, scrutinizing his interactions with another robin in a nearby tree.

Once the bird moves on at the end, she’ll depend on the backpack to beam frequent location data to the Argos satellite, back to Williams’ laptop, to track it.

The goal is to unravel why some American robins migrate long distances, but others do not. With more precise information about nesting success and conditions in breeding and wintering grounds,”we should be able to tell the relative roles of genetics versus the environment in forming why birds migrate,” said Williams, who is based at Georgetown University.

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 kind of golden era for bird research,” said Adriaan Dokter, an ecologist at Cornell University who is not directly involved with Williams’ study. “It’s pretty amazing that we can satellite-track a robin with smaller and smaller chips. Ten years ago, that was unthinkable.”

The apparatus this robin is sporting can give precise locations, within approximately 30 feet (roughly 10 meters), rather than around 125 kilometers (200 km ) for previous generations of tags.

That means Williams may tell not just whether the bird remains in town, but on which road or backyard. Or whether it’s flown from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to land on the White House lawn.

A second new label, for just the heaviest robins, includes an accelerometer to give info regarding the bird’s movements; future variations might also measure humidity and barometric pressure. These Icarus tags work with a new antenna on the International Space Station.

That antenna was initially turned on about a couple of decades ago,”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,” said Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, whose scientific team is honing the technology. Once”the usual troubleshooting for space science,” the antenna has been turned back with this spring.

As investigators deploy precision tags, Wikelski imagines the evolution of”an’Internet of critters’ — a collection of sensors around the world giving us a better picture of the movement of life on the planet.”

The American robin is a iconic songbird in North America, its glowing chirp a harbinger of spring. Yet its migratory habits remain a little 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.”

An earlier study Williams worked showed some robins are long-distance migrants — flying over two,780 miles (4,480 kilometers ) between their breeding area in Alaska and winter grounds in Texas — while some others hop around one backyard the majority of the year.

What factors drive some robins to migrate, but others don’t? Does this have to do with accessible food, temperature fluctuations or achievement in mating and rearing girls?

Williams hopes more detailed data from satellite tags, combined with records of nesting success, provides insights, and she’s working with partners that are tagging robins from Alaska, Indiana and Florida for a double-blind analysis.

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

In a Silver Spring, Maryland, lawn, Williams has unfurled nylon nets between tall aluminum poles. After a robin flies to the internet, she delicately untangles the bird. Then she holds it in a”bander’s grip” — along with her forefinger and middle finger loosely on both sides of the bird’s neck, and the other 2 fingers around the body.

On a tarp, she measures the robin’s beak length, takes a toenail clipping and plucks a tail feather to gauge general wellbeing.

Then she weighs the bird in a little cup onto a scale. This one is all about 80 g, just within the threshold for wearing the exact penny-sized Argos satellite tag.

Williams fashions a makeshift saddle using apparent jewelry string 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 into the ground, then takes a few steps under a pink azalea shrub before flying away.

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 and determine 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 yearly cycles do migratory birds face the greatest threats? Could it be exposure to pesticides in Mexico, the clearing of rainforests in Brazil, or is it what people do in their backyards here in the U.S.?”

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Follow Christina Larson on Twitter:@larsonchristina

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for content.

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