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Earth Notes: Motus Bird Migration Tracking

A bird with a white breast and bright yellow bill perches in a leafy tree
Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren
U.S. Geological Survey
A bird with a white breast and bright yellow bill perches in a leafy tree

Like humans on a long road trip, migrating birds need spots to rest and refuel on their extraordinary journeys.

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is an international collaborative tracking network to understand bird migrations and movements. And soon, thanks to the Northern Arizona Audubon Society, that network will have two tracking stations in northern Arizona.

Motus, from the Latin word for movement, involves tagging birds with tiny radio transmitters. When a radio-tagged bird flies within 9 to 12 miles of a Motus tracking station antenna, it ‘pings’ a detector and is recorded on the project’s open access database.

One of the new stations will be on Anderson Mesa, a globally recognized Important Bird Area. The second will be on Rancho Tres Brisas in the Verde Valley, joining four Motus sites in central-southern Arizona which are already yielding important results.

In August a Motus antenna in southeastern Arizona detected a federally threatened species, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a bird with a long showy tail. The bird had been fitted with a transmitter earlier this summer in Kern County, California. Motus data show that the cuckoo, nicknamed Hummus, had already traveled 900 miles, via at least six different wildlife preserves on its way to South America.

Knowing the migration routes of birds like Hummus will give insights into strategic habitat protection for this and many other imperiled migrant species.

This Earth Note was written by Diane Hope and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University, with funding from the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.

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