Why Indiana is putting "backpacks" on birds: BTN LiveBIG

Why Indiana is putting "backpacks" on birds: BTN LiveBIG

Throughout the Midwest and even up and down the Western Hemisphere, birds are flying around with “backpacks” on and it’s all thanks to Indiana University researchers who are looking to get a bird’s-eye view of our environment.

“We go out and catch these birds mostly in the spring using almost invisible nets that are specially made to catch birds,” says Alex Jahn, who is a migration patterns fellow at Indiana’s Environmental Resilience Institute. “And, when we have the bird in the hand, we attach GPS tracking devices to them, to understand their movements throughout the entire year. And these are just like a little tiny backpack. They weigh less than two grams, and they give us an idea of exactly what the bird is doing on a day-to-day basis. The bird doesn’t even notice it’s there, but it gives us very valuable data.”

Jahn and colleague Adam Fudickar, who is an adjunct professor of biology and a research scientist at the Environmental Resilience Institute, are attaching these “backpacks” to birds that fly within the state and along the Mississippi Flyway, a busy migratory corridor that runs through the skies above Indiana.

“Indiana is perfectly positioned to study bird migration because it’s located so centrally on the continent,” says Jahn. “We’re just south of the Great Lakes where so many birds go to spend the summer. And then north of the Gulf Coast where birds go to spend the winter. So, by studying migratory birds here in Indiana, we’re really capturing a continental level process, and as a scientist, as an ornithologist, that’s very exciting.”

The goal is much deeper than just tracking movement, though.

“My research is mostly on bird migration, on how birds are reacting to climate change, urbanization, basically, environmental change across Indiana and outside of Indiana,” Jahn explains. “And we’re using birds, migratory birds as sentinels of change.”



Birds have the possibility to teach us a lot, Jahn notes. Namely, they react much quicker than humans to change. Due to their size and level of activity, their survival is dependent on it. “The idea with using birds as barometers of change is that they’re tracking the environment much quicker than we are and therefore they’ll give us an indication of how ecosystem changes across the environment are occurring.”

One prime example lies within the close relationship between avian behavior and seasonal changes. Birds largely reproduce during the spring, so by carefully documenting their preparations and comparing them to past observations we can glean a deeper understanding of seasonal change.

Tracking the birds can also tell us about how resources are moving across the planet by monitoring closely where birds feed. And, as birds are susceptible to some diseases that are of concerns to humans, such as Lyme disease, they can track the movement of those as well.

The ability to do this kind of research, though, is only made possible through the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration fostered at a major research university such as Indiana.

“This kind of work requires one to be collaborative,” explains Fudickar. “So, we have a close collaboration with faculty member and computer scientist Jeffrey Brown. We work closely with him to develop this new technology. Really to miniaturize technology that we think can help us learn more about animals.”

Fudickar, Jahn and their team are still working with Brown and other engineers to perfect the avian tracking device. The goal is to make the technology developed at Indiana available to scientists around the world.

This program is part of the larger network of Indiana University Grand Challenges. These are a family of large-scale, interdisciplinary projects that are focused on finding solutions to a host of problems facing the state and the world.

“IU, specifically, is a great institution for this project because it’s going to take so much knowledge and interdisciplinary research to do this,” says Jahn. “IU, as an institution, offers all these resources to be able to accomplish projects such as this. This project is part of the IU Grand Challenge: Prepared for Environmental Change. And it’s so key to understanding the challenges facing Indiana in the 21st century. Indiana is not living in a vacuum, it’s part of a global economy, global environment that is changing very, very quickly. Helping Hoosiers prepare for these changes as quickly as possible is our mission. So, studying animals as small as migratory birds is part of that mission because they’re reacting to these changes in ways that we still don’t understand, but in ways that are probably very relevant to how this planet will be looking in the next few decades.”