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Niagara College tracking tower for the birds

A new tower atop a building on the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus of Niagara College supplies data about migratory bird patterns, helping scientists understand the effects of climate change.

A new tower atop a building on the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus of Niagara College supplies data about migratory bird patterns, helping scientists understand the effects of climate change.

The Motus tower tracks different birds, such as the yellow-bellied prothonotary warbler, red-tailed hawk and loggerhead shrike. Birds tagged with micro transmitters ping the tower, one of a complex network of towers throughout North and South America, linking data to the Birds Canada server. The tower was installed last year at the campus, and has just recently become operational and online. According to its website, Birds Canada is the country’s only national organization dedicated to bird conservation.

Professor Martin Smith, coordinator of the ecosystem restoration graduate program, explains, “The tower is equipped with an old-fashioned AM/FM receiver which picks up signals from birds with radio transmitter tags so small a songbird or butterfly can carry it. As the bird flies, different towers ping the identity of the bird, for example from Toronto, to Niagara College, across the escarpment, over the river to Buffalo and the University of Buffalo tower.”

In 2020, students from the ecosystem restoration program began creating and executing a plan for the tower, as well as securing resources for the project.

From the data collected, researchers can track where a bird species is, how long it stays there before moving on, and “unfortunately, where it was last heard, if killed. This gives us information about where they’re not surviving, and allows us to identify weaknesses in the life cycle,” Smith said.

As one example, fish flies hatching en masse in lakes and rivers provide migratory birds ample sustenance to move on to the next habitat. However,  “if fish flies have already hatched because of climate change, the birds’ cycles are out of sync,” said Smith. Data collected from the Motus tower allows scientists to see where birds are dying and allows for improved habitats.

“Historically, we were very simplistic. The more we study birds, we see some individual birds take migration very seriously. For example, take two red-tailed hawks,” Smith says, one who flies to Venezuela and one, like the one recently tagged at the NOTL campus, who stays here for the winter. “As a species, it is their insurance policy to stay where they can find food and raise a family. However, in another year, the food source may not be here and it may die, whereas the hawk which flew to Venezuela would survive. Motus helps us with these matters.”

Those in Smith’s program are most often graduate students learning practical applications of technology to prepare them for the workforce. A recent donation from the Niagara Falls Nature Club allows student researchers at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus to net and tag species.

Ecosystem Restoration student Christa Jackson is gaining experience with the Motus tower as she monitors the prothonotary warbler for her wild species management class. 

“The Motus system is an amazing opportunity to learn more about birds and their migration habits and possible routes,” she said. “Working with the Motus system has left me wanting to work with birds even more.”

 Thanks to the Niagara Falls Nature Club and their generous donation, students will be able to learn “in a real-world way,” said Alan Unwin, dean of business and environment, in a news release from the college.

The tower “also connects us into a larger more expansive database network that will benefit others, even outside of the college, as the data the Motus unit will produce will feed into the broader monitoring network,” added Unwin.

Currently, there is one other operational Motus tower in the region at Brock University. Smith hopes that one day a Motus tower can be installed at Niagara College’s Welland campus, allowing researchers and ornithologists to gather data from the north, central and southern parts

of Niagara.

Ecosystem Restoration is a one-year graduate certificate program within NC’s School of Environment and Horticulture, based at NC’s 125-acre Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.