Tracking campus birds for science

Biology department uses specialized feeders to track birds on campus

A mountain chickadee with identifying leg bands being extracted from a mist net. (Kile McKenna/Submitted)

A mountain chickadee with identifying leg bands being extracted from a mist net. (Kile McKenna/Submitted)

Since the start of the new semester, you may have seen what appear to be pieces of irrigation pipe hanging from trees around campus. The pipes are actually special bird feeders, designed to help study the movement of birds here on university grounds.

The group that designed and placed the feeders is led by Matt Reudink, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

According to Reudink, birds are tracked around campus by fitting them with plastic leg bands which each contain a small passive transponder.

“These are the same things that are used in studying salmon and tracking salmon migration. Essentially what it is, is a small unique identifier chip. If you have an antenna and reader you can pulse it and the passive transponder will then shoot back the number of that transponder,” Reudink said.

The antennae in the feeders around campus log a timestamped record each time one of them is visited by a bird that Reudnik and his assistants captured and fitted with a leg band.

According to Reudnik’s research assistant Jackson Kusack, the birds that have been captured for the study are mainly mountain chickadees and house finches, but some house sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and song sparrows were also used. Kusack said that these birds were chosen because they live at TRU year-round and feed mostly on seeds.

Kusack is one of more than 10 undergraduates who are involved in the project, Reudnik said.

The specially-designed bird feeders used to track bird movement around campus. (Jim Elliot/The Omega)

The specially-designed bird feeders used to track bird movement around campus. (Jim Elliot/The Omega)

There are six feeders around campus sending data in real time and an additional two internally logging data for later collection. Feeders were placed near the Culinary Arts building, the Clock Tower, the Ken Lepin Sciences building and parking lot S, according to Kusack.

Reudink said that the plans for the feeders were open source and available online, but he had to enlist the help of TRU physicist Mark Paetkau and some of his students to actually create a working tracking system.

According to Kusack, the final feeder design is composed of 3D-printed parts and contains a radio frequency identification (RFID) reader, an antenna with a three-inch range to read the leg bands on the birds and a small Wi-Fi-connected computer.

Reudink said that another two sets of feeders built at TRU are in use at UNBC and by researchers in Umea, Sweden.

Since the feeders on campus were placed, they have logged more than 100,000 pieces of data, each indicating a two-second period where a tagged bird was at a feeder, according to Kusack.

Reudnik said that he has enlisted the help of computer science lecturer Kevin O’Neill and geography professor David Hill, who, alongside some of their students, have created a dynamic visualization program to display the data online.

“I think that the thing I really want to emphasize is just how collaborative and multidisciplinary this project is,” Reudnik said.

“The power in this is that we’re making this all publicly available. We’re putting it all just openly on the web. It can be used by researchers, by students and by the public. It’s a teaching resource,” Reudnik said.

The teaching applications of the program would be most relevant to students in developing countries or large urban centres who might be unable to view the movement of birds firsthand, according to Reudink.

Reudink plans to use the data gathered by the feeders to assess whether the small birds being studied are willing to cross physical barriers or open ground such as roads or parking lots in search of food.

“This is a very passive, easy thing that we can set up to look at gap crossings. Say if you’re going to put in a pipeline or roads for forestry, does that affect the movement of birds across it?”

“That helps with public relations, because if you’re working on conservation and trying to minimize habitat fragmentation, everybody likes that, but being able to show a visual representation of that really helps,” Kusack said.

Reudnik said that he would eventually like to see feeders like the ones deployed around campus placed in Kamloops residents’ backyards and using their power sources and Internet connections to share data with researchers.