Fitbits for birds

If you have ever used a step counter or a heart rate sensor, you’ve used the same technology that biologists at Lenoir-Rhyne University are using to study Herons. We take a look at how the same GPS and tracking technology is being used on birds.


If you've ever used a step counter or a heart-rate sensor, you have used the same technology that biologists at Lenoir-Rhyne University are using to study herons.

Up next, we take a look at how the same GPS and tracking technology is being used on birds.

This is more than just a photo of a majestic Great Blue Heron.

The bird, by the way, is on Lake Norman.

It's near Charlotte.

No, this is also a picture of frustration.

It was kind of, like, aggravating that it was across the lake and not coming to the bait bin.

But it was exciting to see it, and get to see actually how big it was.

And here's what makes these photos images of feathered frustration.

Usually we put something over his head, also, which seems to calm them down, if they can't really see.

And so it's a multi-person job.

Somebody has to be holding the bird, and somebody else has to be taking the measurements.

Like that.

The students in the Environmental Club at Maiden High School want to catch, measure, tag, and release the heron.

It's part of a nationwide study of the great birds.

They've been learning how to do it safely -- for the bird and for themselves.

The tarsus is gonna be this part of his foot.

So it's gonna be from down here at his foot up to kind of that first joint.

So we're gonna take that measurement of the left and the right side of him.

We're also gonna measure his wing chord -- basically from here all the way to the tip of his wing.

And this is also what we would use whenever we do the culmen.

We would come up here and we would measure from the feathers all the way to the very tip end.

When we have done the ones in the past, we've gotten it within 30 to 45 minutes.

More on the study in a moment.

That box in the water behind the bird is filled with tiny fish.

There are 47 small and large traps underwater around the bait box.

The traps are designed to simply hold the bird, not injure it.

The plan calls for the bird to step in a trap on its way to the box.

The students would swoop in, quickly do their work, and release the bird.

The heron has other ideas.

It was cool to see it.

I mean, we all got up out of chairs, we started running down.

We saw him in the trap.

And he was stuck there pretty good when we got down there.

And when the doctor was, like, 15 feet away, he just took off into the air.

[ Sighs ] It was disappointing.

It was really disappointing.

Catching and studying the large birds hasn't always been disappointing for students in the Environmental Club.

These photos are from 2014.

The students helped capture and study a heron they named Big Blue.

It was also on Lake Norman.

And that takes us to that study of the great birds.

And then, of course, every bird is a mystery.

Every bird has a story to tell.

And they all tell different stories.

We have to learn to speak the birds' language.

And they don't speak in our language.

So we have to use this technology so they can tell us their story.

So, besides measuring the birds and taking a blood sample, each bird is fitted with a high-tech tracking device.

So, this is a mash-up from the GPS system of a smartphone with a Fitbit, all being solar powered.

We can measure, basically, the location of the bird in 'X,Y.'

So we can locate it on the globe.

We can also see how high it is above the surface.

And we also know what the bird is doing -- so whether it's flapping, going up and down, going side to side.

And it operates just like a Fitbit that people are wearing now.

So we actually have an annual fingerprint of how active the bird is.

130 Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets across the country have been outfitted with the devices over the past five years.

So, these things will communicate with the cellphone network, okay?

So, three times a day, it connects to the nearest cellphone tower and sends all the GPS coordinates of the bird to that cellphone tower.

And here's why that's important.

The data shows that heron, Big Blue, never leaves the Lake Norman area.

Based upon the GPS coordinates, we know that this bird, during the months of March and April, was using 65 acres of shoreline territory in order to catch enough fish to feed itself and its chicks.

And then, when we go to the non-breeding season, you can see that the amount of area has dropped quite a bit.

Now we're down to 27 acres.

And notice, no more visits to the colony.

And also, no more visits to some of these outlying places.

The bird can meet all of its needs in just 27 acres along this little piece of shoreline right here.

Other herons and egrets have ranges of hundreds, even thousands of miles to meet their needs.

They're not making distinctions with what country they're in.

A bird in Maine is going there, and it's breeding, and then it goes to Haiti for the wintertime.

It's important to know that Maine and Haiti are connected.

The study provides a unique insight into how the birds live, and how they survive.

This is when this bird arrived at the breeding colony.

And at that point, it doesn't have to travel very much because it's courting, it doesn't have any chicks yet.

But then, as time goes on, the chicks hatch, you can see the distance flown per day increases 'cause the demands of his family are increasing.

But then the chicks fledge, and the amount of flight drops off precipitously, and now the bird is just taking care of itself, and perhaps saying, 'Whew!'

[ Chuckles ] 'That was a hard breeding season.'

Every organism is like a lightbulb.

It has a certain rate at which it uses energy, whether you're talking about an oak tree or a bacteria or a bird.

So, based upon the wattage that the animal has intrinsically is going to determine how much territory it's going to have to use.

This technology has actually allowed us to estimate or calculate an ecological footprint for an animal.

We know how many acres these birds need of shoreline.

This is an opportunity to get close to an animal that you haven't been able to get close to before, and learn something about it.

Birds, it's very hard to know where a bird goes.

And so a tracking device on the back of a bird can teach you so much that we haven't known before.