Faculty of Science

Silent Seasons: High tech migration studies seek threats to bird populations

by Mitchell Zimmer

Thanks to advances in digital technology, a team headed by biologist Chris Guglielmo can track their bird and bat studies from ground level right up to outer space. A Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and Ontario Research Fund (ORF) grant of nearly $3.4 million will help researchers develop and harness new technologies to study the migratory routes of birds and bats on local, regional and global scales. This collaborative study with the University of Guelph, Acadia University, Western, and partners in Europe will revolutionize our understanding of migratory routes – some that span continents – and will help the researchers to understand why some bird species are endangered as well as the adaptive capacity of others to respond to climate change scenarios.

“The big overarching goal of this is a twenty year commitment to link all of Canada’s birds to their migration and wintering areas to create a migration atlas which doesn’t exist anywhere in the world” says Guglielmo. Indeed, for some species, some 80% of all mortality happens during the extended flights, yet those flights are largely a black box. Where do the birds go on their way south, where do they stop to rest and refuel, why do they die? “It’s important, especially for species in trouble, but also with the climate changing, we need to measure what it looks like now and then we can track this through time and see if migration routes are shifting and if wintering areas are changing.”

Guglielmo adds that this successful collaboration really got off the ground in 2008 when he met Acadia University’s Phil Taylor who is the Research Scientist for Bird Studies Canada and was working at the Long Point Observatory in Southern Ontario. “So we connected and I was really interested in trying out his

Black throated Blue Warbler with transmitter

Black-throated Blue Warbler with transmitter

telemetry arrays and radars, so we co-supervised some students and we formed a memorandum of understanding between the Biology Department and Bird Studies Canada and one of the goals in there, besides training students, was to develop grant proposals together. Ryan Norris at the University of Guelph, who was also hired around that same time in 2008, was interested in the same thing ... so it was really the three of us coming together.” Then other people at the Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR ) at Western also become interested in what they could do with the new tracking technology, Scott MacDougall-Shackelton and David Sherry from the Department of Psychology, Elizabeth MacDougall-Shackelton and Liana Zanette from the Department of Biology and Claire Jardine of the Department of Pathobiology from the University of Guelph all developed ideas “and so the time and opportunity came up...and we thought we could make the case for a new opportunity that would keep us on the leading edge.”

The trouble with the old way of tracking migratory animals by radio was that each tag had to be assigned its own frequency. The new digital technology can track as many as 200 animals on each frequency. If directional antennas are then set up in a synchronized array where they overlap, multiple detections from different towers can reveal where tagged animals are with tremendous accuracy. “There’s this huge wave of new technology ... and we want to get on front of that wave” says Guglielmo. “People have been talking about new ways to do long distance tracking, to use these telemetry arrays, but we’re really one of the first groups that now have enough funding to create a large scale array.”

The strategy requires the installation of over 100 antennas hooked up through cell phone networks or connected to the internet to cover Southwestern Ontario, as well as nodes installed by collaborators in the US. So after a number of birds are captured, tagged, weighed, measured and samples are gathered, they are released back into the wild. “Now we can detect when birds depart,” says Guglielmo, “we should be able to find out where they land again and look at flight duration, distance and the routes that they take.” The system will allow researchers to track birds with pinpoint accuracy across thousands of kilometers. That accuracy will allow the researchers to find their study birds repeatedly and to measure their health and physiology. “That’s what’s going to be really revolutionary,” says Guglielmo. “You can see the flight and you can measure the characteristics.” Guglielmo’s group and many other scientists have previously examined numerous bird flights in the AFAR wind tunnel, but the pinnacle of the research is being able to relate controlled laboratory studies to the more challenging and unpredictable natural environment. “It’s really about measuring the physiology, neurobiology and behaviour of captive birds and then trying to relate that to what we see in the field with wild species.”

This new approach of collecting information also calls for new ways to process the huge amounts of data that are generated. Data can be collected every fifteen seconds on hundreds of different birds and bats and it is only through the cloud computing services available to Western which will allow researchers to see where tagged birds are almost in real time. This is a vast improvement where investigators previously had to drive around “to each receiver station once a week and download the data” says Guglielmo and then “process it and months later we actually find where the birds went.” That’s far too long to hope to recapture the bird and collect that vital data of its condition and health.

The local scale array takes this same technology but concentrates it into much smaller woodlot sized areas to detail the behaviours of individuals and to monitor the impact of a changing environment on crucial aspects of their foraging and reproductive habits. Researchers like David Sherry will be able to follow the routines of chickadees in fine detail as they cache food in the winter or, as in Liana Zanette’s research, how cowbirds prospect for nests to parasitize. If the host female is subjected to the double stress of parasitism and environmental change, will she take the trouble to lay eggs or care for those eggs? The detailed tracking of the local scale will also help migration studies as researchers unravel how those birds utilize their habitat and food sources during stopovers.

The digital tracking technology will also be paired with advances in geoscience technologies to take the research global. One method will take advantage of Western’s Laboratory for Stable Isotope Studies (LSIS). Over the last decade it’s been worked out that the stable isotope signatures in bird feathers and insect wings can yield clues to where they have been. “You can catch an animal and you can measure the isotopic composition and compare that to a map of how those isotopes vary across huge scales all across North America,” says Guglielmo. “The most common one is deuterium it varies in rainwater and in the surface waters across all of North America. For arboreal birds, they grow their feathers on the breeding grounds and then they migrate through here and then they go all the way down to South America or maybe Central America and we don’t know what the connections are between the breeding, the migrations and the wintering areas, so with isotopes we can sample feathers from the migration spots here or even down on the wintering areas in the subtropics and tropics and then over time, with enough sample size, we can connect all of these things together.”

Gathering samples will be made easier when people from Bird Conservation International are called on for help. “That’s really important because the big challenge in this is going to be tackling the global scale, getting samples of feathers and of water from all over the place.” At this point the expertise of Fred Longstaffe , Director of the LSIS, will be dedicated to this project. “We’ll probably have to run tens of thousands of feather samples and other environmental samples,” to match the isotope signatures.


Receivers will be installed in the International Space Station as part of the ICARUS project

Receivers will be installed in the International Space Station as part of the ICARUS project

The second part of the global scale is joining up with the ongoing ICARUS project. Martin Wikelski of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology has been working on ways to track birds from low earth orbit. There are now plans to install receivers on the International Space Station and other satellites launched by the European Space Agency (ESA). The ESA has contributed the funding to develop a tiny transmitter that can fit on even the smallest of birds but can still be tracked from space satellites. When the technology is developed then, “especially for things like endangered species, we can get really high resolution information on the breeding areas, the migration routes, the wintering areas and where they are dying.” Especially in the case of insect eating birds, such as swallows and whippoorwills, where segments of their populations have crashed by about 80% in the past 40 years. “We don’t really know why at all,” says Guglielmo. “If the transmitters can get small enough we can get really good information on where individuals are coming and going. We’re actually one of the first groups in the world that will be ready to use the ICARUS system as soon as the receivers are deployed in space.”

According to Guglielmo, the combined impact of improvements in digital technology and big data analytics, along with the groundwork laid out by studies done at the AFAR, will make Western and its partnering institutions the hub of bird studies in Canada. “We’re going to be busy, but I’m pretty excited about the future.”

For more insight into this story see the Western News item.