[WORKING WITH RADIO FREQUENCY ID] For years I’ve been looking for ways to track the feeding behavior of individual birds. There’s an incredible amount of information that we don’t know, even about our most common feeder birds, even here in North America where everybody’s feeding chickadees and cardinals. It’s actually really hard to follow an individual bird over an extended period of time and keep track of what it’s doing. And bird the size of chickadees and nuthatches are way too small for GPS units and backpack receivers.

[PIT Tag (passive integrated transponder)] This little tag right here is a PIT tag, a passive integrated transponder. RFID stands for radio frequency identification, and this is what allows us to track the feeding behavior of birds in an unprecedented way.

[Dr. David Bonter, Direct of Project FeederWatch] I’m the Director of Project FeederWatch here at the Lab of Ornithology. I got into ornithology because I like this, I like being outside and I was really looking for a way to get outside. And to do research that was related to feeder birds, to answer questions that we need to know about feeder birds. So our whole set up here is we have a PVC tube that contains the birdseed. This bin here is a waterproof container that holds all of the electronics. This circle of wire here is actually the antenna that is creating the electromagnetic field that’s probing the surrounding space for the presence of a PIT tag. And whenever a bird lands on here to grab a seed, a bird that’s wearing a PIT tag, it will absorb some of that electromagnetic energy and send a signal back to the antenna, which will then run down through this wire here onto our circuit board. And it’s a pretty simple RIFD unit. It has a memory chip here, and anytime a bird with a PIT tag lands on here, on the circuit board we’re recording the date, the time to the second, and the ID number of that bird.

One of the really neat things about the RIFD technology is that it’s been around since the 70s. It’s not cutting edge technology, it’s in boxes that Walmart uses in distribution centers that tracks the boxes, it’s in our passports. So, passive integrated transponder technology is out there. It has widespread commercial use, which makes it cheap for us because companies are using it like crazy. When this technology came along and that light bulb went off –hey, we can actually use this to understand the behavior of the individual birds, around the clock – how they feed during the day, their daily patterns of foraging behavior, how that changes throughout the course of the year, how birds switch their diet from season to season.

All of these questions we can look at because of these little PIT tags that we’re putting on the legs of individual birds and tracking their individual behaviors. Live long and prosper. And students really love it. Change the battery…connect the circuit board to the computer. 4,000 hits at this one. We’re tracking about 125 individual birds of four species and from those 125 birds in the last two years we’ve recorded over 2.2 million visits to the bird feeders that we have out in the woods here.

We were blown away and thrilled with the amount of data coming in from this really simple technology. And it’s open up a whole world of new research and new avenues that we can travel down and get students involved with to learn more about the natural world, focusing in on common backyard feeder birds which are the model organisms for answering bigger scientific questions. We’ll just put it back together, fill it up with seed. One of the great powers of citizen science is that we’ve got people out there watching birds everywhere in all sorts of different ecosystems and environments. And since this technology is relatively inexpensive and easy to use, I think we have the potential to expand, expand this research out and develop a network and answer some of those bigger questions.

[To learn more, please visit http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/]

End of transcript

The same technology used to locate lost pets is now being used to track common backyard birds. Scientists and students at the Cornell Lab have collected data on hundreds of thousands of feeder visits so far by Black-capped Chickadees and other birds. Tiny tags weighing less than one-tenth of a gram are attached to the birds’ legs and are detected each time the birds visit specially rigged feeders. Watch as David Bonter describes the radio frequency identification (RFID) technique and what we can learn by keeping track of who’s coming to dinner.