Posted by: soniahs | April 13, 2011

Angry Birds to migratory birds?

Digital tools can help us understand bird migration. How so?

Many animals take seasonal long-distance migrations- this is especially evident for birds. For many bird species- including raptors, songbirds, wading birds, and seabirds- the reproductive benefits of migrating thousands of miles from summer breeding grounds to winter feeding grounds outweigh the costs of such a difficult journey. Therefore, natural selection has resulted in massive large-scale migrations of these animals.

Flying cross-country is MUCH harder than the slingshot mode of transportation... (Image:

Migration usually takes place twice a year, as you might expect: in spring (to summer breeding grounds) and in the autumn (to winter feeding grounds). While different species, and even different populations within species, have different migration routes, there are several known migration corridors or “flyways” that are traveled by many species. Flyways are determined partly by the relative north-south positions of the feeding and breeding grounds, and partly by prevailing wind patterns, geography, and habitat along the way.

In North America, there are three major flyways, as seen on the map below. Now think about a tiny warbler or sparrow making this journey from, say, Ontario. It requires an enormous amount of effort just to cross the United Sates- and then you reach the Gulf of Mexico! While some birds cut straight across the Gulf (remember- these are forest birds, so can’t stop and swim for shore), others head south via Florida or along the Mexican coast.

Major North American flyways (Image:

Other birds have even longer migrations. This map shows the migratory routes of several species who breed in the Arctic. Again, keep in mind that birds who fly over the Pacific have very few spots to land. Many, many birds get exhausted and literally drop dead along the way. Clearly, migration is a hazardous proposition.

Migration patterns of Arctic birds (Image:

The process of understanding migration routes has been quite complex. We can record when birds arrive at and then leave a specific site (phenology), but that doesn’t tell us where individual birds are coming from and going to, unless the birds are banded or being tracked by radio telemetry. Both of these types of research are very labor-intensive. However, now there are new digital tools that let both casual and hardcore amateur birdwatchers help in this effort.

One example is eBird, an online database that compiles bird observations, and which is then used by ornithologists to study bird distributions. This type of crowdsourcing also helps enthusiastic birders participate in science research. One recent addition to eBird’s website is a set of animated maps showing migration patterns for several species.

Animated GIF of Chestnut-Sided Warbler migration (

These maps are limited to the contiguous U.S., so hopefully they’re working on ways to expand them to show a wider area. Migratory birds certainly aren’t restricted by human borders, and these maps would be a great tool to show that.

Another digital tool that helps understand bird migrations is quite different- radar! Apparently, the number of migrating birds during peak migration is so large that flocks of birds can be picked up on radar. It takes a keen eye to differentiate the radar patterns birds make from weather phenomena, but this tool is being explored as a way to track migration patterns.

Tracking birds with radar: April 12-13, 2011. (Image:

Radar can show us how birds are affected by weather systems and which locations birds are stopping in. This information could obviously be a great resource for birders- if you know that birds traveled to the SE coast of Florida last night, you could get up this morning and head over to birding spots on the coast. This seems like a pretty interesting tool to use for understanding birds.

Will adding digital tools to more traditional on-the-ground ways to measure bird migration help us understand birds better? Will these tools excite a new generation of potential birdwatchers? Non-digital citizen science projects are already showing us the effects of global warming on bird migration. If these projects have a larger scope and interest a bigger segment of the population, they might be able to accomplish quite a lot. And they’ll teach us more about birds than that they really, really hate those self-satisfied pigs.

Fore more information or to participate in these efforts, check out these sites:



  1. Those of you who bear an irrational, unjustified hatred for Rovio’s Angry Birds can breathe a sigh of relief. Contrary to last week’s report, Angry Birds has not become the more popular PlayStation Network game. PHEW, THANK GOD FOR THAT!


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