Bird Tracking Technology
Various methods of marking birds for identification are believed to go back as far as Roman times and this was generally done to indicate ownership. The first person to ring birds for scientific purposes was Danish ornithologist Hans Christian Cornelius Mortensen (1856-1921) who put aluminum rings marked with unique numbers and an address, first on the legs of European Starlings, and later on storks, herons, gulls and ducks, with the intention of tracking their movements. The first organized banding scheme was established at the Rossitten Bird Observatory by German ornithologist Johannes Thienemann in 1903.
Since those early days bird banding has been invaluable in gathering data for conservation and scientific purposes. But banding has its limitations, as once birds are set free they are very often only identified again when found injured or dead, and then only if the person finding the bird takes the time and trouble to report it. At best, bird banding provides only a few pieces of the puzzle of bird migration and behavior. However, rapidly advancing technology has opened up new avenues of tracking birds, with the most promising being satellite telemetry, which provides information immediately.
In 2005, satellite telemetry was used by the Wildlife Research Institute (WRI) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) to track Southern California’s Golden Eagles, and this was later expanded to include Montana. Tiny transmitters are attached to the birds and their signals are tracked by satellites no matter where they may travel. Working in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the WRI received data via the internet enabling researchers to determine exactly where the eagles have been and when. The information is so detailed that it can be determined how high the eagles flew, and how fast they were flying. In the event of an eagle not moving, it’s location can be pinpointed and the bird rescued if injured, or recovered if dead.
As plans for alternative energy sources in the form of wind and solar farms move ahead in California, data on migration, nesting and hunting patterns of Golden Eagles will be invaluable in ensuring the survival of this already endangered species. On a wider scale, the cost and availability of satellite telemetry is an obstacle that may be difficult to overcome, particularly in developing nations, and so bird banding remains an important activity for conservationists.