There have been some incredible advances in tracking devices used in wildlife research, particularly for small birds. Wildlife telemetry devices have shrunk in weight, for sure, and there are far fewer trade-offs to realize the weight advantages.
What would you need in tracking devices for your next project to make them ideal? Here are some points that we think are very important. What do you think?
Sub-gram weight would allow you to study the smallest of birds and other small animals. Generally, the research-permit issuer, Bird Banding Lab, wants wildlife telemetry devices to be no more than three per cent of the animal’s weight. In a study of birds weighing 21 grams, or ¾ of an ounce, that calls for a tracking device no more than .63 grams! Pretty light stuff, for sure.
The best device would last the life of the bird. If your research project spans several seasons, you need a transmitter that will last as long. Until now, the available tracking devices didn’t last that long. So your project might include some leaps of faith to try to address missing evidence. It could also mean buying more tags and trapping more birds each year, to keep the volume of data sufficient. Ideally, battery-powered telemetry devices for small birds would last far longer than the weeks to months some manufacturers claim. In terms of efficiency, solar panel technology has improved significantly. The smallest panel, efficiently designed and integrated, would provide sufficient power to ensure the most reliable data transmission for the life of your subject.
When it comes to programming and activating the wildlife telemetry devices, you don’t want to be hampered with turning tags on and off with specialized tools like infrared remote-controls . You’re in the field, and need devices ready to go when your study subject is in hand. Naturally, this can call for you to operate at night. Losing small pieces like magnets in the dark is almost guaranteed.
Integrated data portal
Data is the heart of your project, so you need to get your data reliably in a form you can use. Small bird telemetry systems depend on the tags you deploy signalling a receiving station, telling you when and where your subject is. The difference maker is in how your data is displayed. The user interface has got to be clean and easy to operate.
The best wildlife telemetry devices would be useful in multiple geographies, with no cause for concern on your part about other devices from the same manufacturer being mixed up with your data. Can you imagine the data showing your subject behaving like a completely different species, then apparently resuming its expected behavior? It can happen.
Many receivers types and locations
Ideal transmitters for small birds (and other wildlife research) are detectable by multiple methods and in many locations. Depending on your scientific question, this could mean presence-absence to determine migratory bird survivorship. It could include resource selection and so require fine-scale location data. And of course you want to be able to find the bird in the field using a hand-held tracker and/or aerial drone (UAS).
How about if your question involves migration routes? You would need to be able to make tag detections in different regions. So it would also be great if the tag was detected by a large network of stationary receivers, like Bird Studies Canada’s Motus network, and you could get that data, too. What if your tags could also be detected by transceivers on larger animals in your study region?
Let’s face it, harnesses can be a pain. Reducing the hassle factor would be great. If you want to use different materials or techniques to attach the devices to your subject, the manufacturer should be able to add some value here. The best small bird telemetry device would allow you harness options.
The problem with current telemetry devices for biologists studying small birds is that it still requires the researcher, you, to do a good deal of computer and telecommunications engineering. Otherwise, you have to work around limitations. How much of this you’ll need to do will always depend on the design of your project.
Low entry price that scales
Another key item is that all this is available at a price point that easily fits a grad student’s research project budget. It would start as a simple kit that has a couple of tags and a hand-held tracking device. This small investment would be able to continue to operate for potentially the length of a career! And you have a clear road map forward to grow the system. In terms of leveraging any equipment bought now, the receiver network around the world should grow rapidly, as it now is. The longevity of the tags means your study expands the number of birds tracked each year.
What to demand in wildlife telemetry for small birds
In 2020, you can do much, much better than in previous years. As far as small bird telemetry devices, expect them to:
- weigh very little
- work for a long time
- reliably deliver accurate data
- be easy to set up
- have no worry about problems from a limited number of device ID codes
- have simple operation
- be detected by large network of multiple receivers
- have attachment options
Did I miss anything? Let me know what you think by leaving a comment.