Humans monitor animals for a range of different reasons, such as identifying how large or dense their populations are and ways to ensure we can protect them and their habitats. Over the years, scientists have used techniques such as identifying animal tracks, setting up cameras to record their behaviour, and simply just observing them in person.
When it comes to birds, it gets a bit trickier to follow them as soon as they take flight, so a popular method of monitoring bird species is to tag them with a tracker. This allows scientists to track their movements and gain an understanding of the distances they cover, as well as any patterns in their behaviour. The advantage of this is that once the bird has been tagged, data can be recorded for a long time without humans having to try and monitor them in-situ.
The first birds remotely tracked using satellites were albatrosses, back in 1989. Since then, scientific understanding of the lives of bird species has improved dramatically. We know much more about where they travel, whether for migration or hunting for food for their chicks; and ways they could be impacted by human activity, such as persecution or expanding human infrastructure.
There are different tagging systems that use slightly different methods of tracking a bird’s location. For example, Argos – a network of satellites dedicated to environmental studies – use Platform Transmitter Terminals (known also as Doppler PTTs), tags on the birds that emit signals that the satellites will pick up. This signal’s pitch will vary depending on the distance between the tag and the satellite, meaning the bird’s location can be pinpointed with a good degree of accuracy. PTTs are small enough that they can be used on birds as light as 100g, such as cuckoos.
The best-known tagging system however is GPS, which utilises signals from multiple satellites all around the world. This activity will use GPS signals. Cuddly toy birds are fitted with a GPS tracker – an Apple AirTag – and participants have to work out where they are hiding by tracking locations using the ‘Find My’ app on an iPad. This works ideally as an outdoor activity whereby the birds are ‘nesting’ in their habitats and participants have to explore in small teams to identify where they may be.
Download the full info pack, including the kit list and activity instructions: Satellite Safari
This activity is part of the ASDC project Our World From Space. Our World From Space is a two-year national STEM programme exploring the relevance of UK space science for the future health and sustainability of our home planet, funded by UK Space Agency in partnership with Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), part of UK Research and Innovation.