NAIT project puts Edmonton on international bird-monitoring map

Station adds to global capacity to track health of migratory species and their habitats

Most birds make a sound you could call a tweet (the original, natural kind). Under special circumstances, however, some also emit a unique series of pulses inaudible to the human ear. In that case, they’re “heard” by radio receivers on towers.

That’s the principle behind the Motus wildlife tracking system, a Birds Canada project that registers those pulses, sent from a tiny transmitter attached by researchers, to determine a particular bird’s real-time location. It’s essential information for studying migratory populations and, in relation to those, the quality of ecosystems.

Now, for the first time, that network of hundreds of stations – spread over every continent but Antarctica – has been extended to Edmonton, thanks to work by a Wireless Systems Engineering Technology (WSET) student. What’s more, that entire network may be improved.

photo of nait wireless systems engineering student matthew nelson sits at a laptop amidst radio equipment

“Most of the people who run the Motus system are biologists and researchers – not radio-frequency engineers,” says student Matthew Nelson, who led the set up of Edmonton’s lone receiver on Main Campus for his final-term capstone project.

That is, a different kind of expertise is required to not only set up a station but to solve problems that may interfere with data collection. It’s a different but complementary approach to the same goal: conserving small flying animals.

Learn what you can do with a Wireless Systems Engineering Technology diploma

Filling in blanks for the birds

photo of motus radio transmitting device, a thin wire attached to a tiny white bulb

The idea for the project hatched when WSET program chair Dr. Kevin Jacobson attended a talk by Dr. Geoff Holroyd, chair of the Beaverhill Bird Observatory, a migration monitoring station an hour east of Edmonton. Holroyd was discussing northern saw-whet owls, a favourite of the NAIT staffer.

“Suddenly he’s talking about transmitters and receivers,” says Jacobson, a long-time birdwatcher with his wife, Claudia Bolli (Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’00). “And I thought, ‘That’s what we do.’”

photo of motus wildlife tracking system tower and receiver on roof at nait campus in edmontonWith a donation from the Saskatoon Tribal Council, a supporter of a previous project done by WSET students, Jacobson purchased antennas and computer systems to detect passing birds and feed data into the Motus system where it can be freely accessed by researchers. Holroyd lent him a tag – a thin wire attached to a small, bulb-shaped transmitter – for testing.

Installed on a tower on the roof of Main Campus, the system went live in April 2024.

It’s a welcome addition for Dr. Barry Robinson, a grassland bird biologist for Canadian Wildlife Service in Edmonton. While there are many stations along the east and west coasts and Canada-U.S. border, the Prairies are underserved. Robinson has been working to build the collection.

“It's really important to understand where birds spend their summer months and their winter months, or non-breeding season,” says the researcher, who loaned Jacobson antennas to get the installation started. (The project was also helped by Mark Cundict, a Red Deer-area Motus enthusiast who donated a receiver and technical insight.)

In understanding their comings and goings of birds, biologists can recognize changes in populations – an indicator of the health of species and habitats.

Should there be a decline, “there's no way to even start investigating the mechanisms unless you know where those breeding and non-breeding habitats are.”

photo of nait student matt nelson holding an antenna for the motus wildlife tracking systemMotus receivers can help pinpoint those locations. “The more towers there are, the better,” says Robinson.

But the new NAIT tower isn’t the only reason he’s glad Jacobson reached out to him for advice in setting up a station, following Holroyd’s recommendation. After bringing the system online, “we were seeing a problem,” says Jacobson.

And it wasn’t only happening at NAIT.

Building a better network

photo of two raspberry pi computers receiving signals from the radio receiver of NAIT's motus wildlife tracking system

Building the system is only the start for Jacobson and future WSET students.

For Nelson, it was a great way to learn how to build a receiver, from the point of setting up the antennas to wiring them to computers and linking to the Motus interface. Just as importantly, though, it turned out to be an excellent exercise in troubleshooting, which holds promise for the entire Motus network.

That opportunity arose when the system detected obvious anomalies. In one case, a Canada goose detected in Prince Edward Island seemed to be “suddenly transported to Edmonton,” says Jacobson. That is, its tag was emitting the same identifying series of pulses as the one on loan from Holroyd, suggesting a data management or equipment problem.

In another instance, the NAIT system detected a piping plover – a species that had yet to migrate from the Gulf of Mexico. Towers have been known to mistake radio “noise” for pulses.

“We’re still just looking into it,” says Nelson. But the foundation has been laid. Jacobson feels that his program is positioned to help isolate these problems, which are experienced elsewhere in the network, and, as Nelson says, “piece together ways that we can fix these common issues.”

photo of a canada goose in flight, wings raised

With that foundation, a partnership has been forged, with NAIT bringing unique opportunities to the relationship. Not only has the polytechnic joined a network of researchers around the world, it may extend it through connections to industry members whom Jacobson knows and feels may be willing to make space on their own towers for Motus receivers.

“This is going to be a longer-term [project],” he says. “There are a lot of things we can do” – meaning that students will build upon Nelson’s work.

In a way, that could build on Robinson’s too, and that of researchers the world over.

“There’s really great potential,” he says, “to continually improve the system as time goes forward.”

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