The Lewis’s Woodpecker is likely one of the West’s avian gems. It has a ruby-red face and emerald feathers draped throughout its again like a cape with a silver cowl. In summer time it swoops and circles over woodlands west of the Nice Plains, performing aerial acrobatics because it hunts bugs on the wing. Whereas wintering in forests of the far West and Southwest, it aggressively defends caches of saved nuts from piratical Acorn Woodpeckers. Charming as it’s, nevertheless, there may be nonetheless a lot we don’t know concerning the chook’s actions and biology—or what has pushed its inhabitants to say no by about half for the reason that Sixties.

To determine what’s spurring the losses, scientists at MPG Ranch, a conservation analysis group in western Montana, are monitoring Lewis’s Woodpeckers with a easy and more and more common know-how. Since 2019 they’ve hooked up radio transmitters to birds breeding within the Bitterroot Valley. When a tagged chook passes inside a dozen miles of one in every of 13 receiver stations within the 96-mile-long valley, its id is robotically logged on the antenna location, revealing its actions on its breeding grounds. People tagged within the Bitterroot have additionally pinged monitoring stations in southwestern Oregon, offering new details about the place the birds go in winter. The know-how is portray a fuller image of the woodpeckers’ annual actions, says MPG Ranch biologist William Blake, and serving to to pinpoint the place they may be operating into hassle from logging, wildfires, or different threats—and thus the place to focus conservation efforts.

From left: In Florence, Montana, William Blake retrieves knowledge from a Motus station alongside the Bitterroot River. The system detects and information tagged birds, together with Lewis’s Woodpeckers, that go by; ecologist Kara Stone readies a Lewis’s Woodpecker for launch after equipping it with a radio tag; an innovation in radio tag know-how makes them light-weight sufficient to connect to small animals similar to songbirds, bats, dragonflies, butterflies, and others. Pictures: Tailyr Irvine

The Lewis’s Woodpecker is one in every of tons of of species that scientists are remotely monitoring with the Motus Wildlife Monitoring System, which went on-line in 2015. Named after the Latin phrase for motion, Motus makes use of arrays of automated radio receiver stations to detect tagged animals over huge distances. Immediately some 1,500 receiving stations are energetic across the globe. Scientists have affixed tags to greater than 34,000 animals, from birds and bats to butterflies and bumblebees.

The Motus community is overseen by a group on the nonprofit Birds Canada together with longtime migration scientist Stu Mackenzie, who helped pioneer the system with Acadia College researchers within the early 2010s. Whereas scientists have used radio telemetry to trace animals for the reason that Sixties, current technological advances have ushered in miniature tags weighing as little as a espresso bean. These tags might be hooked up to songbirds as small as Canada Warblers or Grey-cheeked Thrushes—and even tinier bugs. Along with learning their actions, scientists can analyze tag knowledge to glean particulars like when a chook is energetic, when it’s sleeping, and when it takes flight.

A biologist attaches a radio tag, readable by Motus stations, to a Kirtland’s Warbler. Radio tags might be hooked up with a dab of glue on a chook’s feathers, which can finally molt off with the system, or safely looped round their physique with light-weight string. Photograph: Karine Aigner

Prior to now scientists needed to observe radio-tagged animals with cumbersome handheld antennas, stalking them throughout the panorama to get inside sign vary. Now with Motus, an enormous group of collaborators have assembled a world community of stationary, cheap radio receivers that may passively decide up indicators from any tagged animals close by.

“You possibly can put a Motus station on absolutely anything,” Mackenzie says. Many are stand-alone towers. However they’ve additionally been hooked up to phone poles, climate stations, ships, lighthouses, highschool roofs, and, close to Tucson, Arizona, an inactive windmill. One factor these places all have in widespread: a transparent view of the sky, to finest decide up indicators.

When a chook passes by a receiving station, a pc information and shops the distinctive radio ID from its tag. Many stations add these knowledge on to the Motus database housed at Birds Canada’s Nationwide Information Centre in Ontario. This centralized database is the ultimate innovation underlying Motus’s success. It connects all antennas from all over the world and makes the data freely out there to researchers and the general public at motus.org.

In Lengthy Level, Ontario, migration researcher Stu Mackenzie, along with his canine assistant Alba, checks on a Motus antenna at Birds Canada’s Lengthy Level Bird Observatory. It’s a part of a challenge that put in greater than 100 Motus stations throughout the Canadian province. Pictures: Laurence Butet-Roch

Each monitoring know-how has its execs and cons. GPS tags, which have been deployed for the reason that mid-Eighties, are essentially the most geographically correct, however they’re heavy and costly. Geolocators, half-gram sensors that estimate location from gentle depth, got here on the scene within the early 2000s, permitting researchers to comply with songbirds for the primary time. However additionally they have a catch: You should recapture a chook to get better the information saved on the gadget, and nearly all of birds are by no means recaptured.

With Motus, there’s no have to spend days or even weeks within the discipline attempting to catch birds that had beforehand been tagged. What’s extra, the system harvests knowledge in actual time. “I can sit in my workplace at a college or at an Audubon facility, and the information come to me,” says Cristina Francois, former director of Appleton-Whittell Analysis Ranch of Audubon, which erected a station in Arizona in March.

Motus’s essential limitation is the quantity and density of stations. Receivers span from as far north as Canada’s Northwest Territories to as far south because the southern tip of Chile, however most are concentrated in jap areas of Canada and america. There are markedly fewer in South America, the place many migratory birds overwinter. “The precise vary of a Motus station is sort of small in comparison with the vastness of the panorama,” Mackenzie says. “There are a lot of gaps within the community.”

From left: In Primavera, Chile, the world’s southernmost Motus array tracks the actions of Crimson Knots and different long-distance migratory shorebirds within the Tierra del Fuego area; Semipalmated Plovers that nest on the Arctic tundra are tracked by one of many world’s northernmost Motus stations, positioned on the Tundra Ecosystem Analysis Station in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Pictures: Antonio Larrea; Joel Edwards

When buildings are far aside, scientists are caught making educated guesses as to the routes birds take. So that they’ve adopted a strategic method in putting some stations to get essentially the most bang for his or her Motus buck. A sequence of 4 stations spanning the Isthmus of Panama, for instance, might detect nearly any tagged animal flying overland via the slender hall, revealing which birds comply with this course between North and South America.

Motus is complementary, not competing, with different monitoring instruments, says Mackenzie: “We would like all these applied sciences to be working collectively to resolve the issues that we face.” It’s a frightening problem. Throughout their annual cycles migratory birds encounter habitat destruction, pesticides, predators, excessive climate, and plenty of extra threats to their survival. Information of birds’ places—an endangered species’ flight path or areas most well-liked by flocks—is integral to safeguarding them year-round.

Motus knowledge may also help present policymakers easy methods to prioritize funding and goal areas for cover. As an example, lots of North America’s grassland birds winter within the Chihuahuan Desert within the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. However farms and ranches are overtaking helpful habitat. The brand new Motus station at Appleton-Whittell Analysis Ranch is a part of a challenge led by Bird Conservancy of the Rockies (BCR) to review how declining species like Grasshopper Sparrow use the remaining Chihuahuan grasslands. “Which of them are crucial for conservation efforts to finest serve the wants of those birds?” says Matt Webb, a BCR avian ecologist. Motus will assist him discover out.

The community lends itself nicely to conservation as a result of it’s collaborative by design. Whereas MPG Ranch’s Blake is utilizing stations dotting the Bitterroot Valley to review Lewis’s Woodpeckers, additionally they decide up any tagged animals that get shut sufficient—for instance, Financial institution Swallows and Golden Eagles tracked by different researchers. “In some instances, [the scientists behind] a challenge might profit from the actions of tens or tons of of people who’re sustaining stations on their behalf, usually unbeknownst to them,” Mackenzie says. “All people is working collectively for that widespread objective of understanding as a lot as we are able to about migratory animals and in the end conserving them.”

That method displays a pattern in conservation science as nicely. Information repositories just like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird, Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative, and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Conduct’s Movebank all embrace open, communal science and rely upon knowledge sharing. “The dimensions of questions that we’re asking for migratory birds is so large that when you’re not collaborating throughout establishments, throughout political boundaries, you’re by no means going to get the solutions that you simply want,” says Invoice DeLuca, a migration ecologist with Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative who helps Audubon facilities set up Motus stations. Up to now 13 Audubon nature facilities host Motus stations, filling vital gaps within the community. Audubon additionally helps stations in South Carolina, the Nice Lakes, the northern Yucatan, Colombia, and elswhere.

Blake feels the urgency of constructing partnerships. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are doing nicely on their Montana breeding grounds, in order that they have to be encountering threats elsewhere throughout their life cycle that account for declining numbers. As coordinator of MPG Ranch’s Intermountain West Collaborative Motus Mission, he’s working with researchers throughout the West to put in dozens of stations there. They may enable him to reply questions key to the woodpecker’s survival—and assist his colleagues be sure that different species thrive, too.