July 2021

Bird Tracking By Satellite

Over 500 years ago, a falcon held for sport by Henry IV of France escaped. It managed to reach Malta - 1350 miles away - before recapture, and was most likely a Peregrine/Eleonara's ("Maltese") Falcon. If enough of the recovering species again breeds on Malta, satellite tracking of their movements could show whether Henry's bird was likely to have actually made its original peregrination to France under its own power.

Instead, today it is Malta Turtle-Doves which have been fitted with miniature transmitters, and whose location signals have been tracked and recorded from earth orbit in real-time. Not just because their once-abundant numbers have recently fallen, but because they are so heavily predated by sport hunters. The advantage of recent initiatives like this Bird Life Malta[1] program is that individual birds were able to be continuously tracked as they moved about freely (through 2020). No need to decipher a band from a dead or captive bird - as long as the battery holds out, their journeys and whereabouts are known.

In the UK, a similar attempt is being made with Woodcock Watch[2], through the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which has posted composite tracking maps and summary data up through 2015 across northern Europe. Want the thrill of this year's live reports? Consider "adopting"[3] a specific named bird from a photo roster of 10, and gain access to daily location info as well as monthly satellite downloads plus cool merch to impress your birding friends.

Prefer instead to go Southward on your virtual, vicarious migration? The British Ornithological Trust's Cuckoo Tracking[4] project offers the choice of a dozen sponsorable European Cuckoos who head for Africa each winter, passing primarily through either Spain or Italy. This study, too, is prompted by recent declines in population vigor, with the realization that firm data regarding migration could help reveal the causes. The BTO helpfully provides a succinct, in-depth "Masterclass"[5] article explaining the technology involved.

From North America, the Smithsonian's National Zoo offers an interactive Tracking Map[6], showing results from 1997-2017, from 6 species. 23 individual birds were tracked to Asia and South America, including Long-billed Curlews, Black-bellied Plovers, Swainson's Hawks, and more. Each data point is clickable, and the distance between each successive point reveals the physical distances that have been covered, often impressively far.

Finally, for an visually stunning animated illustration of the tracking results from many such programs working with birds and other animals, take a look at Movebank[7] (a Favorite), the database homepage of the Max Planck Institute's free worldwide consortium of satellite tracking researchers.

The Bird Wide Web™ will be publishing a new article each month.

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