Conserving Threatened Songbirds With Revolutionary Tracking Technology

Grassland bird eggs at American Prairie in Montana.

Grassland birdslike the Sprague’s pipit, Baird’s sparrow, the mountain plover, chestnut-collared longspur and thick-billed longspurhave experienced massive declines over the last 50 years. According to some estimates, populations of these species have reduced by about 2-4% per year since the 1970s.  

Sprague’s pipits rely on broad tracts of native grassland in the Northern Great Plains for breeding, and sprawling desert grassland in the southern plains and Mexico during the winter. Critically, populations of this migratory songbird have declined by 92% over the last 60 years.  

The Great Plains Science Program team seeks to save the Sprague's pipit and other grassland birds to prevent further decline of this imperiled bird community.  Our goal of restoring populations of grassland birds relies on gathering and using data to inform effective conservation techniques. 

How we track threatened songbirds

Our scientists utilize a revolutionary tracking system that enables us to study the movement of animals as small as a AA battery. With this, we can study entire populations of pipits through their full migratory cycle, identifying the times and places in the birds’ annual cycle where the biggest problems occur. 

Using the Motus wildlife tracking system

Wildlife tracking technologylike the Motus systemallow us to study animal movement in species that are too small to carry GPS or satellite tags, like the Sprague’s pipit. Individual Motus stations mark the presence of single animals at a particular location, with detection distances that range up to 30 miles. When operating as a cluster or network of sensors in a giant mark recapture array, Motus tracking becomes effective enough to describe the movement ecology of thousands of animals, which can enable the tracking an entire species. 

Gathering data to save species

The research goals of our songbird tracking project are to: 

  • Describe the migratory routes and key life events of the Sprague’s pipit, and learn more about how breeding and wintering locations are connected. 
  • Estimate breeding season and annual survival rates of pipits based on Motus tracking data, via the use of a hidden multi-state mark-recapture model. 
  • Describe in detail how the birds disperse across their range during breeding season.  
  • Determine the best possible study design for estimating seasonal survival rates for grassland birds using the Motus network, based on the number and spatial distribution of research stations. 

In addition to using the Motus system, our team conducts extensive tagging and tracking of grassland birds each year, capturing and tagging about 100 adult birds per year with lightweight telemetry tags. This work takes place on our primary field sites in Montana on lands belonging to the Fort Belknap Indian Community, American Prairie, and the Bureau of Land Management. 

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