Tracking Backyard Birds


For years I’ve been looking for ways to track the feeding behavior of individual birds. There’s an incredible amount of information that we don’t know,
even about our most common feeder birds, even here in North America where
everybody’s feeding chickadees and cardinals. It’s actually really hard to follow an
individual bird over an extended period of time and keep track of what it’s doing. And bird the size of chickadees and nuthatches are way to small
for GPS units and backpack receivers. This little tag right here is a PIT tag,
a passive integrated transponder. RFID stands for radio frequency identification, and this is what allows us to track the
feeding behavior of birds in an unprecedented way. I’m the Director of Project FeederWatch
here at the Lab of Ornithology. I got into ornithology because I like this, I like being outside and I was
really looking for a way to get outside. and to do research that was related to feeder birds,
to answer questions that we need to know about feeder birds. So our whole set up here is we have a PVC
tube that contains the birdseed. This bin here is a waterproof container
that holds all of the electronics. This circle of wire here is actually the
antenna that is creating the electromagnetic field that’s probing the surrounding space for
the presence of a PIT tag. And whenever a bird lands on here to grab a seed,
a bird that’s wearing a PIT tag, it will absorb some of that electromagnetic energy and send a signal back to the antenna, which will then run down through this
wire here onto our circuit board. And it’s a pretty simple RIFD unit.
It has a memory chip here, and anytime a bird with a PIT tag lands on here, on the circuit board we’re recording the date, the time to the second, and the ID number of that bird. One of the really neat things about the RIFD
technology is that it’s been around since the 70s. It’s not cutting edge technology, it’s in boxes that Walmart uses in
distribution centers that tracks the boxes, it’s in our passports. So, passive integrated transponder technology is out there.
It has widespread commercial use, which makes it cheap for us because companies are using it like crazy. When this technology came along and that light bulb went off –hey, we can actually use this to understand
the behavior of the individual birds, around the clock – how they feed during the day,
their daily patterns of foraging behavior, how that changes throughout the course of
the year, how birds switch their diet from season to season. All of these questions we
can look at because of these little PIT tags that we’re putting on the legs of individual birds
and tracking their individual behaviors. Live long and prosper. And students really love it. Change the battery…connect the circuit board to the computer. 4,000 hits at this one. We’re tracking about 125 individual
birds of four species and from those 125 birds in
the last two years we’ve recorded over 2.2 million visits to the bird
feeders that we have out in the woods here. We were blown away and thrilled with the amount of data coming in
from this really simple technology. And it’s open up a whole world of new
research and new avenues that we can travel down and get students involved with to learn more about
the natural world, focusing in on common backyard feeder birds which are the model
organisms for answering bigger scientific questions. We’ll just put it back together, fill it up with seed. One of the great powers of citizen science
is that we’ve got people out there watching birds everywhere in all sorts
of different ecosystems and environments. And since this technology is relatively
inexpensive and easy to use, I think we
have the potential to expand, expand this research out and develop a
network and answer some of those bigger questions.

39 thoughts on “Tracking Backyard Birds

  1. Thanks for posting this video, and including it in the newsletter! I love knowing how professional ornithologists work, and how citizen scientists help advance the cause!

  2. Bravo on having a clear, well presented video! Regardless of the message that member's want to get across, it is a sheer delight to watch a flawlessly prepared video! I've been a "Citizen Scientist" all of my 6 decades on the planet, for the same reason stated…I LOVE being outdoors. Very interesting information; watched it 3 times and sent links to all my birding buddies!

  3. LOVE THIS VIDEO !!!! Come on out to Pebble Beach, CA. Bet Kelly Sorenson with Ventana Ornithology would love to meet you.

  4. I have many feeding stations, cover, nesting/roosting boxes. I keep my feeders and birdbaths clean & full! I have been reporting to Cornell Ornithology lab for years( the great backyard bird count)! I have many interesting species come visit daily or regularly and many that pass through yearly during migration.. It is like paradise, a sanctuary with pond and gardens all for them that I can watch and fall into. It is wonderful to respect and be part of Gods creation. I am Vegan.
    Lane brody

  5. @MPSecare Just wondering if you thought of putting a magnetic transfer on your windows to at least let the birds know there is SOMETHING there. This helps prevent birds from flying into windows. I have butterfly transfers on all my windows and it has stopped the birds from flying into my windows 🙂

  6. Phenology in the year 2012! Thanks Aldo and thank you Cornell. Looking forward to seeing the data and interpretation. Keep up this important work.

  7. I enjoyed this video. I have a new 5 tiered shepherds hook and I have 3 bird feeders and 1 water dish hanging. I love to sit on my deck or in my livingroom and watch all the different birds come to it. This video is appreciated and will return to find out your results. Interesting!!! thanks!

  8. I'd like to answer your questions with two of my own: What is the opposite of knowledge and how well does it serve our growth?

  9. all the people who have not subscribed to, or disliked your videos have something seriously wrong with their head

  10. -we know all that we need to about the birds themselves– current studies all relate to habitat and the human impact on the natural ecosystems where birds evolved. I think what outreachspiral is saying is that we should go back to the old–fashioned way of interacting with nature, which isn't about "knowledge" (tracking through radiowaves, etc.).

    -why do you concentrate on our "growth"? has the human race not grown enough, expanding to the farthest reaches of the Earth, the sea, and the air?

  11. More information can be found here:
    http://birds.cornell.edu/pfw//News/Winter_Bird_Highlights_2010_p16_web.pdf
    http://birds.cornell.edu/pfw//News/RFID.html

  12. This is a wonderful idea,hats off to all that are involved! I get so many types of birds at my feeders summers and winters.I would love to have this type of technology at my feeders to help build information to help birds in the environment that we have today!     

  13. Lol, i love how scientists are somehow good but corporations are some how bad, for exactly the same thing, finding and selling data.

  14. great technology, I never heard about this. This is really a very informative video. The birds are the most beautiful piece on earth.

  15. Hi. where can we find details about making one of these, I would like to se if this could be adapted for use on hedgehogs.

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