KU, K-State Researchers Use Tech to Track Migrating Birds
Researchers at the Kansas Biological Survey are using technology to track migratory birds that pass through Lawrence. Commentator Rex Buchanan says KU and K-State scientists are part of Motus, a worldwide effort to study and protect our feathered friends.
By Rex Buchanan
A few miles north of Lawrence, on a hill at the Kansas Biological Survey’s field station, a phone pole sticks up about 30 feet in the air. On top of the pole are six antennae. Every time a bird carrying a special radio transmitter flies within 10 or 12 miles, those antennae pick up the signal and record its location.
It's all part of a tracking system called Motus, Latin for “movement.” Motus is a network of hundreds of tracking stations located around the world, but especially in North America. Sixteen are in Kansas, with more on the way. And they’re providing, for the first time, exact information on bird movement. People have tracked birds manually with radio tags for years, but that process is expensive, time consuming, and doesn’t work once the birds get too far from the person tracking them.
Motusmakes it much easier to pinpoint bird movement over long distances.
Here’s an example. On July 5th of this year, just southwest of Saskatchewan, a researcher tagged a black tern. That’s a small, charcoal-gray sea bird that spends its summers up north and its winters along the ocean shore south of us. In August that tern left Saskatchewan and headed south. It was picked up by the Motus station north of Lawrence just after midnight on August 14th. A few hours later it flew past a station in southern Missouri. And on August 23 that black tern was in Costa Rica in central America.
Probably of more interest to people around here are grassland birds, like sparrows and meadowlarks. Alice Boyle is a researcher at Kansas State who oversees much of the Kansas part of the Motus network. She says grassland birds are the ones whose movements we know the least about, and the ones who are in the most danger these days.
“Grassland birds are the fastest declining birds in North America,” she says. “They’re in dire straits. They’re dealing with climate change, habitat destruction, and habitat degradation, like the encroachment of trees and shrubs on the prairie.”
Understanding grassland bird movement, she says, will help us understand why their numbers are declining. And maybe do something about it. Motus isn’t only about birds. Because the transmitters are tiny, some weigh less than a kernel of popcorn, they can be put on bats and even insects. A station on The Nature Conservancy’s Smoky Valley Ranch in Logan County in western Kansas detects as many bats as birds.
In some respects, the Motus project is a great example of citizen science, a project that non-scientists can join in on. Private citizens and landowners have helped support installation of towers like the one north of Lawrence. And anybody can go on the Motus website and track bird movement. “This is really grassroots science,” Boyle says.
This is the time of year when birds are on the move. So this fall, as you watch them head south, it’s good to know that we’re learning more about that trip every day, and maybe we can make their lives just a little less perilous.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, bird watcher and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.