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Migratory Birds with Satellite Transmitters can Help Study Environmental Changes

Migratory birds fitted with small satellite transmitters in their featherlight “backpacks” can teach people more about changes in the environment upon being monitored. Moreover, it could help prevent biodiversity loss.

Great knot flock, including one individual carrying the satellite transmitter, at Raoping, Guangdong, China in April 2017. Image Credit: Ginny Chan.

That is a crucial message in the PhD-thesis that Ying Chi Chan, a PhD candidate of the University of Groningen, based at the Royal NIOZ (Netherlands Institute for Sea Research), defends on May 28th, 2021.

Bar-tailed godwits with transmitters on their backs, directed us to an important area along the coast of the Yellow Sea at Dafeng-Dongtai-Rudong, where many birds roost and feed. Showing the importance of this area for migratory birds led to a halt of intended land-claim in the tidal zone of the Yellow Sea.

Ying Chi Chan, PhD Candidate, University of Groningen

Explorative Birds are More Successful

For around three years, Chan and her collaborators followed bar-tailed godwits, great knots, and red knots with the help of satellite transmitters. Furthermore, as soon as the birds are caught and before fitting them with the transmitters, the team executed easy “personality tests” on the great knots. In this manner, the researchers were able to observe if an individual bird was of the more ‘conservative’ type or the “explorative” type.

We saw that these different personalities led to very different strategies for coping with change in their environment. When the availability of shells for these birds changed, the more explorative individuals were able to deal with this better than the conservative birds. The explorative individuals left areas with poor prey quality sooner, to look for better places to feed.

Ying Chi Chan, PhD Candidate, University of Groningen

They also arrived earlier in their breeding areas in the Eastern Russian Arctic and thus had better odds for successfully raising chicks. This was supported by the fact that they stayed longer in the breeding area. When knots lose their eggs or chicks, they usually leave the breeding area shortly after,” added Chan.

Recognition as UN World Heritage Site

With the help of their study, Chan and her collaborators were the first to chart the precise migration routes of great and red knots together across the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Earlier, there was an assumption that the knots tended to use only one or two stops on their way from the wintering grounds to the breeding region in the Arctic. But Chan found out that the multiple stopover sites in between were utilized by the knots.

Mapping the migration routes and the important feeding sites is crucial for understanding the ecology of these birds. It is also essential to support evidence-based conservation. For example, showing how bar-tailed godwits used a particular area in the Yellow Sea to fuel up, has led to its recognition as World Heritage site by the UN.

Ying Chi Chan, PhD Candidate, University of Groningen

As Chan’s work on waders has been completed, she will begin to work as a post-doc in Switzerland and perform research on the dispersal of little owls and red kites at the Swiss Ornithological institute located in Sempach.

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