Scientists are on the brink of learning the details of where they go and why.
By Dyani Sabin Yesterday at 1:00pm
At the end of April, or when spring starts to thaw, a great migration north begins. Thousands upon thousands of songbirds make the trek, but you won’t see most of them. They fly in the dark to avoid as many predators as possible, and in doing so evade the humans trying to study them as well.
So, even as 4,000 of the world’s 10,000 bird species fly over our heads every night, scientists are still scrambling to answer basic questions. When do birds decide to migrate? How dangerous is it? And how do anthropogenic factors like light pollution and climate change impact birds as they travel?
For much of the history of migration studies, ornithologists would have to go out to field stations, catching and tagging birds as they stopped. Research data on a single population took several years of trying to recapture tagged birds. As citizen science bloomed, ornithologists enlisted volunteers to help count their study subjects, then radar allowed researchers to track birds in the air, but even still, the studies were arduous.
“We are learning about things now on much larger scales. Even ten years ago, if you wanted to study something you had to go out and gather the data yourself,” says Morgan Tingley, an ornithologist at the University of Connecticut. “I think in twenty years, ornithologists probably will have a good sense at any point in time where the majority of species are living and what they’re doing.”