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Tracking Devices

Scientists use different types of tracking technologies to determine the location of a bird at a given point in time. Depending on the technology, they can use this information to determine whether a bird is alive and how it moves through its environment.  The type of technology scientists use depends on their research question and the limitations associated with the biology of the species they are studying. 

Tracking Technique Definition Information Generated Spatial Accuracy Retrieval Minimum Bird Mass (g) Lifespan of Device Cost per Unit

Bird Band 

A small, individually numbered metal or plastic tag that is attached to the leg or wing of a wild bird to enable individual identification. Colored bands are often added to enable identification without having to recapture the bird. By re-sighting (color band only) or recapturing (metal band) individuals, we can determine how long a bird survives and observe its movements. Location and survival at recapture Exact Recapture of bird N/A Years Minimal
PIT Tag An electronic microchip that can be glued to a bird band, attached to a bird's leg or inserted surgically under a bird's skin. PIT tags require no batteries, so they can theoretically last for a bird's entire life. PIT tags can only be read a very short distance from receiving stations. Time that bird was close to receiver Exact When animal passes by antenna or receiver 0.9 grams Years $2
Radio Telemetry The technique of using the transmission of radio signals to locate a transmitter attached to the animal of interest. It is often used to obtain location data on the animal's preferred habitat, home range and to understand population dynamics. Time and location when bird was close to receiver 10 meters When animal passes by antenna or receiver 6.6 grams Weeks to months $100 to $200
Light-level Geolocator A lightweight, electronic tracking device usually used in bird migration research to map migration routes, identify important staging areas and sometimes provide additional ecological information. A geolocator periodically records ambient light level to determine location. Light level that can be used to infer latitude and longitude throughout time 100 to 150 kilometers Archival (requires recapture of bird) 8 grams >1 year $200
Satellite Telemetry A transmitter is attached to the bird. The transmitter sends its signal to an orbiting satellite. The satellite re-transmits the data to a receiving station, which researchers then access through their computer. GPS location data throughout time 250 to 1500 meters Transmitted to satellites and sent to email, web or software in near real time  116.6 grams Months to >1 year $3,000 to $7,000

Click on the photos below to learn more about each tracking device:

Momma cat with two itty bitty kitties in a straw-floored grotto
Carnivore keepers in Front Royal, Virginia, welcomed a litter of two cheetah cubs. First-time mother, 4-year-old female Amani, birthed the cubs Oct. 3 around 9:17 p.m. and 11:05 p.m. ET. They appear to be strong, active, vocalizing and nursing well. Animal care staff are closely monitoring Amani and her cubs’ behaviors via the Cheetah Cub Cam on the Zoo’s website.
Two pieces of a tracking device with small antennas called light-level geolocators
Learn more about light-level geolocators, tracking devices that use daylight to estimate location.
Learn more about PIT tags, tracking tags with an internal microchip that is activated when it passes a special antenna.
Aluminum and colored bird bands (yellow, purple, orange and green) used for tagging and re-sighting birds.
Learn more about bird banding, a tracking technique using aluminum or colored bands.
A coded VHF radio tag, which is used to track birds
Learn more about radio telemetry, a tracking technology that utilizes radio signals.
A small satellite tag with an antenna on one side and two long ribbons on the opposite side
Learn more about satellite telemetry, a tracking technology that calculates location via satellites that orbit the Earth.