Can Backpacks Save Our Birds?

Cornell birders who are trying to track migrating birds to see how their paths have changed through global warming are working on a solution to a big problem. How do you power the tiny sensors needed on the birds to make precise tracking possible? Their solution - Use the movement of the wings to produce the electric current to run the sensors. (Cornell University)

Cornell birders who are trying to track migrating birds to see how their paths have changed through global warming are working on a solution to a big problem. How do you power the tiny sensors needed on the birds to make precise tracking possible? Their solution – Use the movement of the wings to produce the electric current to run the sensors. (Cornell University)

So you want to know where birds go to escape the powerful winds such as those that ravaged the Atlantic seaboard during superstorm Sandy? Curious about how tiny hummingbirds fly all the way across the Gulf of Mexico every year as they return to their nesting area? Puzzled about how migrating birds will survive global climate change that could destroy their precious wetlands?

Find out by putting backpacks on some of the birds, backpacks crammed full of sensors that will record their every move and transmit all that data back to scientists who could learn a lot about flying critters that many claim are modern dinosaurs.

Is it really possible to put what amounts to a portable lab on the back of a songbird, or even an eagle? Scientists and engineers in numerous labs are betting they can do just that, and the data they expect to collect could revolutionize our thinking about our fine feathered friends.

“This is going to be hugely useful,” ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth of Cornell University said in a telephone interview. “We’ll see some real novel things birds are doing that we didn’t think they were doing.” Much of the technology is already available, and Farnsworth wants to see backpacks that can track “where the bird is over the course of its journey from wherever it originates to its destination.” He wants details, and he wants them as close to real time as possible.

That’s a tall order, but across the campus one of his colleagues, Michael Shafer of Cornell’s Intelligent Machine Systems Laboratory, is working on a key problem that has to be resolved before Farnsworth’s dreams can come true. The sensors that can collect the data, the microcontrollers that can log it and transmit it back to the lab, are already available.

But energy is the hog that could kill the bird.

“You can’t put a nine-volt battery on a bird,” since the battery would weigh more than a lot of birds, Shafer said. The solution, he said in a telephone interview, is to make the bird supply its own electricity. To see if that’s possible, Shafer recruited a pigeon to see if he could build a backpack loaded with instruments that wouldn’t cause the bird to flip over on its back and crash to the ground. He knew the package could weigh no more than 4 percent of the weight of the bird.

That was the easy part. The pigeon hardly noticed that it had a hitchhiker on its back.

So he equipped it with a piezoelectric device that can convert mechanical energy into electric energy. As the pigeon flies, its body moves conversely to the motion of the wings. When the wings go up, the body moves slightly down, and when they go down, the body moves slightly up.

That was more than enough to cause a man-made crystal to produce a current in a process first demonstrated in 1880 by the famous Curie brothers, Pierre and Jacques. The amount of acceleration, or movement, of the pigeon’s body in response to the flapping wings was “kind of shocking” to Shafer and his colleagues.

What’s remarkable about this is the entire device was built in the Cornell lab with “off the shelf stuff,” he added, “but we made a lot of modifications to suit our needs.”

He’s confident that a custom made device would perform much better, and he thinks it’s possible that even hummingbirds could be outfitted with backpacks, although the larger the bird, the easier the task. What hummingbirds lack in mass, however, they may make up for with the incredibly rapid movement of their wings.

However, there’s still no such thing as free energy, and the real challenge will be to ensure the device serves its purpose without creating an unacceptable burden for the bird. Lots of similar efforts have failed for that very reason.

The Department of Defense, for instance, had hoped to create small piezoelectric devices that could convert a soldier’s boots to electric generators to power all the gizmos that modern soldiers carry. It worked, but unfortunately, those boots had to keep on walking.

The Pentagon decided the soldiers spent more energy moving their feet than they got back from the device, and the program was abandoned.

The sensors used to monitor birds are very energy efficient, partly because of their simplicity. It’s possible to determine a bird’s latitude simply by knowing the length of the day, sunrise to sunset. The big energy drain is transmission of the data back to the scientists, but there are ways to limit that as well.

In less than a second a microcontroller can transmit an enormous amount of data, so it doesn’t have to be on very often, Shafer said.

Farnsworth, the ornithologist, remains confident that these devices will soon be common, and very useful, especially when climate change could pose major problems for migrating birds.

Of course, birds plan their lives around seasonal climate change, moving from one area to another to take advantage of different resources. That’s why many of them migrate.

But one huge question remains, according to Farnsworth. How quickly can they adapt to change on a global scale, and what can be done to help them? Maybe the answer lies in a backpack.


Turning out lights in Detroit for migrating birds

If we’re lucky, we can catch a glimpse of a migrating bird or two as they pick their way north, but most pass over without us ever knowing.



The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it this way in their Round Robin blog:

An invisible river of animals, rivaling any scene from the Serengeti but consisting of half-ounce birds that pass quietly overhead, in the dark.

Michigan gets it fair share of birds passing overhead in the dark.

We’re part of the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, and while no one knows exactly how birds do it, researchers do know birds use light to help them migrate.

In today’s Detroit News we hear how General Motors is encouraging its workers to turn off the lights in the Renaissance Center.

Lights from buildings can confuse the birds and throw them off-course.

The number of deaths caused by nighttime building collisions is in the tens of millions according to the American Bird Conservancy.

The News reports GM has been recognized by the Detroit Audubon Society for its efforts:

GM encourages employees to turn off their lights at night during spring and fall migrations, from March to May and August to October…

GM has been part of the Safe Passage Great Lakes program for seven years, Kelsey said. This is its first award.

We often don’t think of these migrating birds because we can’t see them.

You can see a video of migratory birds caught in city lights in Chicago. It was put together by Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, a volunteer bird rescue group.

And in the Round Robin Blog, Cornell Lab scientist Andrew Farnsworth was on hand to count migratory birds as they passed through the shafts of light beamed into the sky over New York:

Credit Greg Chow / Creative Commons

Credit Greg Chow / Creative Commons

In all he saw at least 2,000 birds and heard the faint chip notes of many more. He identified 28 species passing overhead and at times flying through the beams of light, where the rush of bodies looked like flurries of snow, he said.

Some make it over a city, some don’t.

These birds didn’t make it in Toronto:

Credit Kenneth Herdy / FLAP

Credit Kenneth Herdy / FLAP

If you want to do something to cut down on nighttime bird-building collisions, Chicago Bird Collision Monitors has these tips:

  • At minimum – Extinguish or dim display lighting, including spotlighting, decorative, advertising and rooftop lighting, on buildings over forty (40) stories from 11:00 p.m. until sunrise during designated spring and fall migration periods
  • What’s desired – Install efficient shield lighting for all exterior lighting fixtures, including decorative, advertising, and security lighting. Light focused downward, eliminating direct upward light and reducing spill light
  • And the best practice – Eliminate display lighting, including spotlighting, decorative, advertising, and rooftop lighting

sources :


image_previewPINE GROSBEAK ( map ): A good flight is expected into southern Ontario because the mountain‐ash berry crop is variable in the boreal forest. Many berries are hard with low moisture content because of the drought. The European mountain-ash and ornamental crabapple crops are poor to fair in southern Ontario so these crops won’t last long. Grosbeaks will be attracted to the usually abundant buckthorn berries and to bird feeders offering black oil sunflower seeds. The Ontario breeding population of this grosbeak is stable.

PURPLE FINCH ( map ): Most Purple Finches will migrate south of Ontario this fall because both coniferous and deciduous hardwood seed crops are very low this year in the Northeast. Purple Finch numbers dropped significantly in recent decades as spruce budworm outbreaks subsided and currently a moderate population decline continues in the province.

RED CROSSBILL ( map ): Red Crossbills comprise at least 10 “types” in North America. Each type probably represents a separate or newly evolving species. Most types are normally impossible to identify in the field without recordings of their flight calls. Matt Young of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that there is currently a large early irruption of Type 3 Red Crossbills (smallest billed type) from the west into eastern North America. Recordings can be made with a cell phone and sent to Matt to be identified (may6 AT Every recording adds an important piece to the puzzle, especially when accompanied by notes on behaviour and ecology, including tree species used for foraging and nesting. Matt emphasizes that the conservation of call types depends on understanding their complex distributions and ecological requirements.

WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL  ( map ): With very poor spruce cone crops in the Northeast, most White-winged Crossbills will likely stay this winter in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, northwestern Ontario and western Canada where spruce cone crops are generally very good. They will be virtually absent from traditional hotspots such as Algonquin Park where spruce crops are very low. Wandering birds may show up throughout the Northeast.

COMMON REDPOLL  ( map ): There should be a good southward flight because the white birch seed crop is poor to fair across the north. Watch for redpolls on birches and in weedy fields and at bird feeders offering nyger (preferred) and black oil sunflower seeds. Check flocks for the rare “Greater” Common Redpoll (subspecies rostrata) from the High Arctic. It is reliably identified by its larger size, darker and browner colour, longer/thicker bill and longer tail in direct comparison to “Southern” Common Redpolls (nominate flammea subspecies). Note: The notion of a “biennial periodicity” that redpolls irrupt south every second winter is not supported by records in Atlantic Canada (Erskine and McManus 2003). The authors concluded that “irregular abundance but near-annual occurrence” of redpolls in the Atlantic Provinces is a better explanation than a two year cycle. Similarly redpolls were recorded on 32 of 38 Christmas Bird Counts in Algonquin Park (Lat. 45.5 N), Ontario.

HOARY REDPOLL  ( map ): Check redpoll flocks for Hoary Redpolls. There are two subspecies. Most Hoaries seen in southern Canada and northern United States are “Southern” Hoary Redpolls (subspecies exilipes). “Hornemann’s” Hoary Redpoll (nominate subspecies hornemanni) from the High Arctic was previously regarded as a great rarity in southern Canada and the northern United States. In recent decades a number have been confirmed by photographs. Hornemann’s is most reliably identified by its larger size in direct comparison to flammea Common Redpoll or exilipes Hoary Redpoll. Caution: White birds loom larger than life among darker birds and size illusions are frequent.

PINE SISKIN  ( map ): Some siskins currently in the Northeast should move south this fall and winter because cone crops are poor. However, siskins are an opportunistic nomad wandering east and west continent-wide in search of cone crops. Most siskins will probably winter in northwestern Ontario and western Canada where cone crops are generally very good. Major southward irruptions occur when cone crops fail across most of North America.

‘Get Off My Lawn:’ Song Sparrows Escalate Territorial Threats

130213114701-largeTerritorial song sparrows use increasingly threatening signals to ward off trespassing rivals. First an early warning that matches the intruder’s song, then wing waving — a bird’s version of “flipping the bird” — as the dispute heats up, and finally, if all other signals have failed, attack.

This hierarchical warning scheme, discovered by researchers at the University of Washington, adds nuance to a communication system that has been long-used as a model to study how people use and learn language

“This is one of the most complicated communication systems outside of human language,” said lead author Çağlar Akçay, who did the study as a UW graduate student. He is now a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University.

“Here we find that if a sparrow matches the intruder’s song as the intruder invades his territory, this almost always predicts that he will eventually attack the intruder,” Akçay said.

The study, published online this month in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is the first evidence that song-matching is used as an early warning signal. Previous studies had hinted, but had not clearly established, that song-matching is a threat signal.

“We succeeded here because we recognized that song-matching is an early warning signal,” said co-author Michael Beecher, a UW professor of psychology. “We designed our experiment to simulate an escalating intrusion by another song sparrow, so that our subject would begin with low-level threat signals before switching to higher-level threat signals.”

A male song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) will defend his territory against any male song sparrow that intrudes. He has a repertoire of eight to 10 songs that he uses to attract mates, post his territory, communicate with neighbors, and, as in the newest study, threaten an intruder.

The researchers recorded songs from 48 sparrows living in Discovery Park in Seattle. To feign an intruder, they perched a stuffed song sparrow in a bush or tree and played the recorded song.

The song was first played just outside of the sparrow’s territory. Believing the song to come from a hidden aggressor close to their home turf, the provoked bird sang and approached the speaker.

The song was then played from a different speaker placed 20 meters (60 feet) inside his boundary, which simulated movement by the rival into the territory. At the same time, the researchers uncovered the stuffed sparrow just above the speaker, with its beak posed as if it was singing.

It was enough to fool the live birds. Many of the sparrows responded first by matching the intruder’s song. When the simulated intruder moved into the territory and persisted in singing, the defending sparrow progressed to higher-level warnings including soft songs and wing waves.

Soft song is not lullaby-like, but is perceived as menacing by enemies. Wing waving, a vigorous vibrating of one wing at a time, likewise looks harmless enough, but it too is an assertive signal.

When the stuffed bird did not react to those higher-level warning signals, the live bird attacked (see video:

“Birds generally do all this signaling,” Akçay said, “because it’s usually beneficial to avoid getting into a fight if it can be avoided. There are less costly ways to persuade an aggressor to back down.”

Most of the sparrows in the study, 31out of 48, eventually attacked. Birds who had song-matched were the mostly likely to attack.

Not all birds showed the same pattern of signaling. A few “bluffers” matched the trespasser’s song without following through with an attack. Some others — labeled “under-signalers” by the researchers — attacked without giving warning signals.

The researchers are studying these behavioral subtypes now, and have collected evidence that these birds, like humans, have personalities that shape their behavior in distinctive ways.

“These kinds of field studies provide context for laboratory research that uses bird song learning as an animal model for exploring the brain mechanisms of learning,” Beecher said. “Using bird song as a model system without understanding its natural social context would be like studying the neural basis of language without any idea of what humans use their language for.”

Other co-authors are Mari Tom, a recent UW graduate, and Elizabeth Campbell, a research technician at the UW. The National Science Foundation funded the study.


New Bird Species Discovered in ‘Cloud Forest’ of Peru

120806135125-largeA colorful, fruit-eating bird with a black mask, pale belly and scarlet breast — never before described by science — has been discovered and named by Cornell University graduates following an expedition to the remote Peruvian Andes.

The Sira Barbet, Capito fitzpatricki, is described in a paper published in the July 2012 issue of The Auk, the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

The new species was discovered during a 2008 expedition led by Michael G. Harvey, Glenn Seeholzer and Ben Winger, young ornithologists who had recently graduated from Cornell at the time. They were accompanied by co-author Daniel Cáceres, a graduate of the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín in Arequipa, Peru, and local Ashéninka guides. The team discovered the barbet on a ridge of montane cloud forest in the Cerros del Sira range in the eastern Andes. Steep ridges and deep river gorges in the Andes produce many isolated habitats and microclimates that give rise to uniquely evolved species.

Though clearly a sister species of the Scarlet-banded Barbet, the Sira Barbet is readily distinguished by differences in color on the bird’s flanks, lower back and thighs, and a wider, darker scarlet breast band. By comparing mitochondrial DNA sequences of the new barbet to DNA sequences of its close relatives in the genus Capito, the team secured genetic evidence that this is a new species in the barbet family. The genetic work was done by co-author Jason Weckstein at The Field Museum in Chicago.

The team chose the scientific name of the new species Capito fitzpatricki in honor of Cornell Lab of Ornithology executive director John W. Fitzpatrick, who discovered and named seven new bird species in Peru during the 1970s and ’80s.

“Fitz has inspired generations of young ornithologists in scientific discovery and conservation,” said Winger. “He was behind us all the way when we presented our plan for this expedition.”

The 2008 expedition was made possible by funding from a special gift to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and donations to the Lab’s student World Series of Birding team, Rawlings Cornell Presidential Research Scholars, National Geographic Young Explorers’ Grant, and the Explorers Club


Tracking the Flight of Birds, With Tiny Backpacks

13birds2-600Birds are famous for airborne speed and endurance. Some have been clocked flying 60 miles per hour or more. Others make annual migrations from Alaska to New Zealand, nonstop. But for scientists, tracking birds as they perform those feats has been an intractable problem. Now researchers think they have cracked it with a novel device — a tiny bird backpack that contains sophisticated sensors and weighs less than a dime.

The new technology has opened up vast new possibilities for bird researchers. Already, it is yielding surprising findings — for example, that some birds fly even faster than previously thought. But its real importance, biologists say, is the opportunity to unlock mysteries of bird migration that could help preserve species threatened by habitat loss and climate change.

“We knew that purple martins went to Brazil and wood thrush went to Central America,” said Bridget J. M. Stutchbury, a biologist at York University in Toronto, who with colleagues fitted birds from the species with the sensors and mapped their migrations last year. “But the details of how an individual gets there, what routes they take, how fast they fly, how often they stop to rest — these are the kinds of details we have never been able to have.”

The research, reported Friday in the journal Science, involved 34 birds, but only 7 were recovered with their sensors. Still, the work “is an important step,” said David W. Winkler, an ornithologist at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, where he said researchers were developing similar techniques. “This represents a whole new level of accuracy,” Dr. Winkler said.

The tracking system relies on instruments called solar geolocators that collect and store data on where the birds are in relation to the sun. Researchers remove the sensors, download the information and calculate where the birds were, and when they were there.13birds-650a

“If the bird were on a hillside you’d get a slightly wrong time,” Dr. Stutchbury said. “If it were a cloudy day you would get a slightly wrong time. But these devices are accurate enough, within 5 or 10 kilometers,” about 3 to 6 miles.

Bird migration is a subject of fascination for scientists and the public alike. Jacques Perrin’s 2003 film, “Winged Migration,” which used remote control gliders and ultralight aircraft to follow birds as they traveled the globe, attracted a large cult following. But while much is known about where birds nest and where they spend the winter, figuring out how they get from point A to point B has been a challenge that, over all, researchers have been unable to meet, especially for small species like songbirds.

Researchers have tried banding birds’ legs, tracking flocks with radar and even using satellites, all to little avail. The new system was developed by engineers at the British Antarctic Survey for use tracking wandering albatrosses, birds that inhabit the waters around Antarctica.

But the wandering albatross is about the size of a large dog, Dr. Stutchbury said. For her research, she needed instruments small enough and light enough for a tiny songbird. Then, at a 2006 conference, the British researchers said they had miniaturized their sensors to 1.5 grams. “That for me was a magic number,” she said. “I could put it on a large songbird.”

The instruments Dr. Stutchbury uses actually weigh even less and sit on a bird’s back, just where the hips are. Each sensor is about the size of the nail on a person’s pinkie. “There’s a little loop that goes around each leg,” she said. “It would be like you wearing a backpack.”

In the summer of 2007, the researchers used nets to trap birds in Pennsylvania and apply the sensors. They made sure the birds were flying, eating, caring for young and otherwise acting normally. Then they sat back and waited for the birds to head south — and then return. On April 25 last year, the first bird with a geolocator returned to Pennsylvania. “It seemed almost a miracle,” Dr. Stutchbury said.

Analyzing the sensor data, the researchers found that their birds flew two to six times faster going north than south — up to about 370 miles in a day, which she said was much faster than had been thought. A female martin flew almost 5,000 miles in 13 days, including 4 stopover days.

For these birds, the Yucatan Peninsula was an important stopover point, Dr. Stutchbury said. Identifying important migratory stopovers will be an important benefit of the technology, she and other experts said.

She said she and her colleagues had tried not to draw too many conclusions because they had data from only seven birds. Still, she said, “that’s seven more than anybody else.”

Last summer, she and her colleagues applied sensors to dozens of more birds. The work is important, she said, because songbird species are already in steep decline and climate change may threaten crucial habitat.