Satellite tagging saving wildlife

There are times when my role in education technology and my personal life as a conservationist and Environmental Science graduate feel poles apart. But occasionally I am reminded how the affordances of technology impact across so many aspects of our lives, and how the advances being made can benefit things that we are passionate about, in my case conservation, and especially when it relates to birds.

The ability to satellite track birds has helped conservationists understand many elements of bird behaviour, such as migration. In the early days of this type of technology it was prohibitively expensive, accessible only to a few large research projects. But as the technology advances, becomes both more affordable and more reliable it starts to pervade other areas of conservation and more people can get involved.

So how does satellite tagging work? There are various types of satellite tags. Most of these tags weigh anywhere from 10–25 grams and are placed onto the bird’s body. Often these tags are placed further back on the body of the bird using a harness. Birds of prey often double their weight before migrating or moving elsewhere so these harnesses must accommodate for their weight gain without falling off during flight.

After a bird has been tagged, the transmitter will send signals up to a satellite. This information will be sent up and then back down to the bird conservationists. There are various kinds of information that researchers can learn about birds through this technology including activity and inactivity, location, speed, temperature, and migration routes. All of this information helps conservationists understand how the bird fares in the sky and where the bird ends up or dies.

diagram of satellite tags
Injured Kestrel

an illegally shot kestrel (Malta)

If you have read any of my posts involving birds on this site you will know I have strong opinions around some aspects of conservation. One area that I am particularly interested in is the prevention of wildlife crime. Persecution of birds of prey in the UK is a particular problem. Iconic species such as the Hen Harrier are practically extinct in England because of illegal killing, but many other species are also regularly persecuted. As someone involved in volunteering and charity work around wildlife I was approached by a team looking for help in raising funds for a specific project looking to provide evidence about the extent of illegal persecution. I was happy to get involved. This is a project that will be able to find any of the birds that have died; because of the tags they can locate them and find out how they died, and if it was a crime.

But this project also got me thinking about the digital capabilities of the various stakeholders involved and how that has changed.

Successful researchers in this field communicate with a huge range of people (some might say stakeholders). They need to be able to use specialist software packages that communicate with the satellite data and a host of other packages needed to integrate across systems, including GPS and statistical software. There is a hardware capability — satellite tags are not plug and play (yet), you don’t just switch it on and connect as if it were a usb dongle. There is also a lot of data security and protection to go through for this kind of project.

But to get to that stage we needed to raise funds — I’ve been helping the researchers use facebook and twitter, and JustGiving, a crowding funding site to provide the funds and to keep people up to date on the project. We also set up some project tools for communication and will be looking at other tools as the project develops.

When I left conservation work and took on my current job, in the late 90’s, I thought I would never be able to engage in this kind of research. The changes in the technology (for example satellite tagging) as made the cost entry level much lower for researchers. But communication tools, social media and the ability to campaign, through crowdfunding, Facebook and Twitter means that the research can be inclusive and accessible, giving individuals the opportunity to ask questions and stay up to date. Whilst most researchers in academic departments don’t require crowdfunding for their work, maybe there are lessons to be drawn from the public engagement of this type of “citizen-funded research”.

If you are interested, and the project has yet to reach its goal, check out the funding page

Finally, and as an aside, looking at how Satellite technology works in monitoring birds I have been thinking about how I can do something to monitor birds in my own garden, using the technology — so watch this space as I learn to do some coding and hardware building.