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Geese sitting on the water in an Oklahoma lake.
Oklahoma State University scientists will work to uncover the mysteries of bird migration by determining what environmental factors affect migrating bird species and how they are responding to major environmental changes. (Photo by Mitchell Alcala, OSU Agriculture)

Researchers developing new technology to understand bird migrations

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Media Contact: Alisa Boswell-Gore | Office of Communications & Marketing, OSU Agriculture | 405-744-7115 |

Mathematical biologists and avian ecologists are teaming up to study bird migration to help preserve bird migration.

Different bird species have different migration strategies, with some being more flexible than others to environmental changes, said Scott Loss, professor of natural resource ecology and management at Oklahoma State University. Environmental changes could help more flexible bird species stay on course while others might be forced to change their migration routes and timing each year.

“The timing of spring vegetation leaf-out is changing because of land cover and climate change, which could mean changes in the timing of food supplies and water,” Loss said. “We want to know: Will they be able to track those changes, or will they be stuck with the migration routes and schedules they have historically followed? And if they’re stuck in the past, will that have a negative impact on their populations?”

Scientists will determine what environmental factors affect migrating bird species, how they are responding to major environmental changes, and what conservation professionals and land managers can do to help. Migratory bird species include ducks, geese, doves, eagles, hummingbirds and many songbirds.

Migratory species time their migrations to breeding grounds precisely in time to build nests and raise their young.

“We know that some species’ reproductive patterns are changed if something along their migration path changes their schedule or their arrival date to the breeding grounds,” Loss said. “Studying effects of changing conditions on migration is crucial to understanding reproduction, survival and the persistence of migratory bird populations.”

Before scientists can suggest strategies for helping migratory species, they must understand the changes that occur in migration patterns and how different species respond to them.

Loss and Lu Zhai, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, will look at data from the eBird online application developed and launched by Cornell University in 2002 to collect bird observation data from both professional and amateur ornithologists. The scientists will review the information to learn how migrations have changed with evolving climate conditions.

“The reason we don’t know a lot about migration is that it’s expensive and difficult to put transmitters and other trackers on birds to follow where they’re going and when,” Zhai said. “eBird is the biggest citizen science database on Earth. It generates massive data on bird observations around the world, and we also have best practices for taking the best of that data to use for science.”

Zhai will use artificial intelligence to identify and predict patterns in how birds are using their landscape during migration.

“We will use multiple AI algorithms to analyze eBird data to help us identify the stopping places for different species of migrating birds,” Zhai said. “We will then give this information to the mathematicians on our project, and they can build a mathematical model of bird migration based on real-world data.”

The mathematical model, which will be developed by Bo Zhang, assistant professor in integrative biology at OSU, and Ohio State University mathematician Adrian Lam, will simulate individual birds moving along their migration routes. The model will also present scenarios that could happen during migration, such as stopping versus continuing and flying different distances. The eBird data will provide parameters for building the model, which will help researchers better understand the outcome of an individual bird’s migration.

“Each individual bird has their own personality and their own memory of the vegetation and landscape, and they have their own particular way of flying and migrating,” Zhang said. “Instead of us theorizing that this bird would do this or that, the information used to build our migration models can simulate how each bird would react to changing scenarios based on their migration behaviors.”

Once these methods of analyzing bird migration are implemented, the project team will host workshops to educate other scientists on how to use the technology and its data.

“Compared to non-migratory species, it’s more challenging to understand what’s going on with migratory birds. There could be things affecting them where they breed in the summer, where they spend the winter and anywhere along their migratory routes,” Zhang said. “This project is about bringing all those life stages together and leveraging both real-world bird observations and advanced mathematical models to understand how to intervene to conserve their populations. These models are going to move the needle on understanding and conserving bird migration.”

 This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Division of Mathematical Science sunder award number 2325196 for $320,080.

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