A Migration Mystery

Summer migration paths of the 15 robins Natalie Boelman's team tracked to study changing bird migration patterns.

Aug. 4, 2016

American robins migrate north to breed, sometimes long distances to the far north. But climate change is unfolding faster in the arctic and boreal region than anywhere else on Earth, possibly affecting many animals and plants that live or migrate through there. Scientists are tracking some of the animals to find out what’s going on—including American robins.

Ecologist Natalie Boelman from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory leads a group of scientists from around the country who are working on “Animals on the Move,” a multi-year field campaign that is part of a larger NASA-sponsored effort to understand the impacts of climate change in Alaska and western Canada. For “Animals on the Move,” scientists are tracking several species—including bears, caribou, moose, wolves, Dall sheep, Golden eagles and songbirds. At the same time, researchers are working in the field to understand how plant life is responding to climate, and using satellite data to monitor environmental and ecological changes.

Why robins? Little is known about the migratory movements of North American songbird species. Although robins are ubiquitous, “keeping common birds common” is a major priority of the National Audubon Society, which reports that “populations of some of America’s most familiar and beloved birds have taken a nosedive over the past 40 years, with some down as much as 80 percent.”

This year, Boelman and colleagues traveled to Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada, to tag robins migrating through the area with tiny tracking devices that send signals to satellites and allow scientists to follow the robins’ progress. The GPS trackers weigh about 4 grams and are the size of a dime. Every two days from April to June, the tags sent a signal to a satellite that transmitted the location to scientists. Researchers were able to track 15 birds of the 28 they tagged.

Boelman also engaged students at the Cottage Lane Elementary School in Rockland County, N.Y., who named the birds and followed their progress on an app. The above map shows how far some of them traveled: Some stayed close to Slave Lake, others went far afield, into the Yukon and as far as western Alaska.

Big Mac, Pepperoni, Billie Jo, Birdy Sanders, Bertie, Journey, Hippy and Twitter flew an average of about 1,215 kilometers (755 miles). “Paul,” named in memory of teacher Paul Doctor, traveled 3,220 kilometers (2,000 miles). 

Over the next two springs, Boelman and her group will tag more robins passing through Slave Lake. They’ll be linking the birds’ movements with information about the environment and ecosystems they move through to understand what may be influencing their migratory behavior.

The core “Animals on the Move” team includes six scientists from five U.S. universities: Boelman at Columbia University; Gil Bohrer, Ohio State University; Jan Eitel and Lee Vierling, University of Idaho; Mark Hebblewhite, University of Montana; and Laura Prugh, University of Washington. The project is a collaboration across numerous institutions in the U.S., Canada and Germany. For more information, visit the team website at NASA.

—  By David Funkhouser, Columbia University, and Mark Hebblewhite, University of Montana


A space robin mascot. Drawing by Nicole Krikun


The space robin mascot. Drawing by Nicole Krikun

April 12, 2016

Ecologist Natalie Boelman is headed back to the far north to study birds—this time to the town of Slave Lake, in northern Alberta, Canada, to track the migration of American robins. She will have some schoolchildren in New York remotely helping her as she and her colleagues get to work.

Migrating birds and other animals and plants are feeling the effects of warming climate, particularly in North America’s arctic tundra and boreal forests, where the climate is changing faster than the global average. A consortium of U.S. and Canadian researchers is starting a 10-year campaign to study tundra and boreal ecosystems under climate change. Among other things, they are putting satellite trackers on animals including eagles, caribou, wolves and bears, to observe their behavior in relation to fires, insect outbreaks, snow cover and other factors.

Boelman, from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is focused on American robins that migrate to the region to breed and fatten up on a rich diet of insects. At Slave Lake, she and two graduate students from Columbia plan to mist-net three dozen robins on their way to their breeding grounds, equip them with mini-GPS tages, and set them free to continue their migration northward. Courtesy of Boelman and a new app, 4th- and 5th-grade students at Rockland County’s Cottage Lane Elementary School will name each bird and track where they go.

You can follow Boelman's work on a blog at the NASA Earth Observatory. Her first post is addressed to elementary schoolchildren interested in following her work. Her second post shares photos from the area and details on how scientists catch a robin. The third post includes videos that capture birds singing and show the team outfitting a robin with scientific gear. The fourth post introduces five new space robins and looks at other birds in the area.

Natalie Boelman

An excerpt:

Have you ever left on a trip during a school break only to get stuck on the highway with what seems like millions of other people? Well imagine hitting the road with three billion people! That’s about half of the people on Earth!

That’s also how many birds travel, or migrate, each spring from all over North American to the arctic and boreal regions in Canada and Alaska. Some populations of American Robins are among these three billion birds.

Why do the American Robins travel north in the spring? The tundra and boreal (or northern) forests near the poles are cooler and provide great conditions for robins to mate and raise families. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet of plant life and insects! There are countless mosquitoes that fill the air in big, gray, buzzing, bug clouds. Robins feast on them! They also like spiders, beetles, seeds and berries, which are plentiful. Yum!

For more on the project and Boelman’s work, check out these links:

— By David Funkhouser