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Antenna will allow scientists to track the life story of migratory birds passing through Chicago
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Antenna will allow scientists to track the life story of migratory birds passing through Chicago

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CHICAGO - If you happen to notice a new antenna on top of the environmental center at Big Marsh Park, once part of Southeast Side steel mill dumping grounds and now home to burgeoning habitat and a growing number of birds, your first thought might not be that it’s aiding in answering some of the great mysteries of the natural world.

But Chicago is now home to a receiver on the Motus wildlife tracking system, a global network that helps scientists make sense of migration. The technology is capable of picking up the movement of creatures as small as butterflies.

The receiver on top of the Ford Calumet Environmental Center is the first of its kind in Chicago. Now, the billions of birds flying through the city — a major migratory flyway — are viable candidates to be followed through their life cycles, said Edward Warden, president of the Chicago Ornithological Society.

“And that’s pretty wild,” Warden said.

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A great egret at Big Marsh Park in Chicago on March 22, 2021.

Birders helped construct and install the Big Marsh antennae, hosted on the Chicago Park District building, as part of a larger birding and habitat initiative from the Chicago Ornithological Society in the Calumet region. The tower will contribute data that can help piece together the stories of birds that make their way from one continent to another, year after year. It’s expected to be fully operational by spring migration.

Traditional tracking sometimes meant having to follow wildlife around, and travel to pick up a signal, said Stephanie Beilke, chair of the COS Calumet Initiative and conservation science manager for Audubon Great Lakes. Birds that are banded can be tracked, but that’s limited to locations where they’re spotted or recaptured. Some technology is too heavy for the delicate animals.

Motus simplifies that, with data from receivers that pick up signals from wildlife with registered tags centralized at the Birds Canada National Data Centre. Nearly 31,000 animals are tagged and nearly 1,300 receiver stations cover four continents, according to the Motus site.

The lightweight tags generally have a small antenna and are attached to the backs of birds, Beilke said. “They basically create a little backpack that the bird wears.”

“The more towers there are, the more data you can get, and the more places you can put out tags,” Beilke said. “Knowing more about an individual species’ full life cycle and the places that they use can better help us understand the importance of Chicago and the bigger picture.”

Placing the tower at Big Marsh — a bird hub on its own — was practical, and with the technology’s ability to cover miles and reach lakefront travelers, geographically advantageous, Warden said. “Big Marsh ends up being a pretty nifty area,” he said.

Ideally, with greater understanding of birds’ travels, conservationists can home in on the most important places to restore and maintain.

Audubon Great Lakes released a report last year on wetland habitat restoration targets, including in the Calumet region, where about 8,000 acres are expected to be restored by the end of the decade. At Big Marsh, where there’s a water control structure in place, two key marsh bird species were spotted in 2015. By 2018, that number grew to 11. Today, avian visitors include state-threatened and state-endangered species.

Habitat loss combined with the mounting effects of climate change — as well as ecosystems warped by invasive species — have posed significant threats to birds.

Some Great Lakes native species are seeing major population declines. In North America, there are 29% fewer birds than there were 50 years ago, a 2019 study found.

“If we’re going to really buckle down and save a lot of these species that are threatened or ones that are still stable now but may become threatened, having this much more detailed data about where birds go — not just in their journeys, but where they stop, how long they stay — is going to be really important,” Warden said.

As for Motus systems in Illinois, coverage is still relatively sparse, outside some stations set up by University of Illinois researchers.

“There’s still a lot of major gaps and areas where, based on hundreds of years of bird research, we know there’s a ton of birds,” Warden said.

But not a ton of information on where they came from. Or where they’ll go next.

“Here’s hoping this is far from the last tower that will be put up,” Warden said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker asks residents who are vaccinated against COVID-19 to share their experiences with others who have not yet done so.

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