How new international surveillance technology could save the birds - and us

Mobile networks, satellites and solar panels are helping scientists see the world through avian eyes.

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“Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” – from Icarus to Aladdin, humans ache to fly. We not only watch birds, we deify them; comparing them to angels and hope itself. And now new technology is helping scientists understand birds’ own secrets: from why starlings “murmur” in vast dances, to how they navigate across the sky.

For Dr Aldina Franco of the University of East Anglia, it all begins with a ladder and a piece of string. In Portugal’s southernmost Algarve region, she can often be found climbing up trees or the sides of houses, surveying the nests of white storks. "They are quite surprised but they are not aggressive,” she says, as she describes the process by which she lowers the birds to the ground and fits a lightweight tracking device across the creatures’ chests, “like a backpack”.

Without enough funding to buy large batches of existing animal-tracking technology, Franco’s team has adapted devices originally manufactured for use in vehicles. They’ve achieved this by developing smaller casing and installing batteries that are no more than 3 per cent of the animal’s weight. A tiny solar panel then keeps the device in operation for around four years, after which special string biodegrades and releases the contraption.

By connecting to global mobile-phone networks, the team can track what individual storks are doing in any particular time and place. This is especially useful for conservationists, who hope to prove the link between shifting migration behaviours and global climate change. But it is not only birds that could benefit.

An initiative called ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) will bypass the use of mobile-phone networks by beaming solar-powered tracking data directly into space. The signals will send to a new antenna on the International Space Station, which is much nearer than the satellites being used on the long-standing Argos system.

This information can then be put to a variety of ends – from helping scientists understand more about birds’ migration routes and the threats they face, to monitoring the spread of diseases such as avian flu. The technology could even turn migratory birds into mobile weather stations, reporting back data as they travel across remote regions of the planet, like the Pacific Ocean or Sahara.

Such vast, international surveillance and data sharing is not without its risks. In 2013, police in Egypt even put a bird in jail – after fearing the tracking tool it carried was being used for spying. Yet according to Professor Martin Wikelski of the Max Plank Institute for Ornithology, all ICARUS tags are coded so that only the owner can read their information. The data is then transferred to a single global database called MOVEBANK, where an international ethics board decides what is safe and unsafe for release (rhino location data, for example, might make the creatures vulnerable to poachers).

There is still a way to go before mass earth observation via animals takes-off, but to successfully tackle man-made climate change we will need the creatures on side too. 

*This article was amened on 15 June to clarify that the Argos system is not restricted to tracking larger animals.

India Bourke is the online editor for the New Statesman's international edition.

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