“Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” – from Icarus to Aladdin, humans ache to fly. We not only watch birds we deify them; turn them into angels and compare them to hope itself. As Simon Barnes writes in his excellent book The Meaning of Birds, these creatures represent “what we would like to be”.
And now new technology is helping scientists understand some of birds’ most long-standing secrets: from how they navigate around the globe, to why starlings “murmur” in vast dances 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, Franco can often be found climbing up trees or the sides of houses, surveying the nests of white storks. When the chicks are ready, she carefully lowers the birds to the ground to fit them with a lightweight tracking device.
“The [storks] are quite surprised but they are not aggressive,” she says, as she describes the process by which the device’s straps are tied, “like a backpack”, across the creatures’ chests.
Without enough funding to buy large batches of existing animal-tracking technology, Franco’s team has adapted vehicle devices to fit on the backs of birds.
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 device allows the team to track what individual storks are doing at any particular time or place – and in what kind of temperature. Most crucially for Franco, it shows whether a stork has decided to remain in Spain or make the long journey to their winter feeding grounds as far as Senegal and Nigeria.
It now appears some individuals in previously wholly migratory species are choosing not to travel. This is a possible concerning consequence of global climate change, says Franco.
If research can prove birds are choosing different routes because of changing climactic conditions, conservationists may then be able to exert greater pressure on governments to create new protected areas.
Plus birds may not be the only ones to benefit from the expansion of tracking technology to more and smaller animals – humans could too.
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 a space. The signals will send to a new antenna on the International Space Station, which is much nearer than the current ARGOS satelitte being used to monitor large animals, so can be reached by lighter-weight tracker-tags.
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).
In an era of man-made climate change, the take-off of animal-led earth observation could help better protect the planet for us all.