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Top Ten Technologies for Studying Birds

Story and photo by Laura Erickson
Top Ten Technologies for Studying Birds

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1. Field Guides and Binoculars. The first binoculars were double-barreled Galilean telescopes invented in the 17th century. In 1889, Florence Bailey published Birds through an Opera Glass. Modern field guides and binoculars brought bird watching to the masses.

2. Numbered Leg Bands. The first record of bird banding was during the Punic Wars, from 218–201 B.C. A messenger from a beseiged garrison carried a swallow to a Roman officer, who tied a thread around the swallow’s leg and released it to signal his response. Since 1909, about 57 million birds have been banded in the U.S. Learn more about banding and how it has benefited birds and humans at

3. Cameras. The camera obscura was invented by a Greek mathemetician in the 6th century. Still, movie, and video cameras help ornithologists document rare species, allow accurate counts of flocks, and establish visual proof of the presence or absence of birds during the time the camera is operating. Motion sensors and infrared make this technology even more useful.

4. Microphones and Recorders. Invented in 1876 by Emile Berliner as a telephone voice transmitter, high quality microphones now capture every nuance of bird songs. Playing recordings in the field can get birds to respond. (Playback should always be done responsibly to avoid disturbing birds more than momentarily.)

5. Radio and Satellite Transmitters. Primitive radio transmitters were built by German physicist Heinrich Hertz in 1887. Large birds have been tracked by radio and satellite transmitters for decades. Passive integrated transponders allow us to track tiny birds. These transponders weigh less than 0.1 gram, less than 1 percent of the weight of a chickadee.

6. Radar. In 1904, German scientist Christian Hülsmeyer patented the first radar device. Nowadays, NEXRAD, developed for tracking weather, allows us to detect the density, location, direction, and speed of movement of birds, insects, and bats, giving a glimpse of major migratory movements. Learn more about this online at

7. Spectrograms. In 1951, the Kay Electric Co. produced the first commercially available machine for audio spectrographic analysis, marketed as the “Sona- Graph.” Spectrograms allow researchers and birders to analyze sounds of interest gleaned from many hours of recordings.

8. DNA Analysis. Since its advent in the 1970s, DNA sequencing has greatly accelerated biological research and discovery, giving researchers deep insights into the relationships between various species and answering other fundamental questions about evolution.

9. Telecommunications. In 1982, the concept of a worldwide network of fully interconnected networks called the Internet was introduced, and the speed at which news traveled among birders went from months or days to minutes or seconds. The Internet allows birders and scientists to get up-to-date information about birds via eBird ( and watch live video streaming via NestCams (

10. Autonomous Recording Units (ARUs). Since 1997, scientists in the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab have been developing ARUs for marine and terrestrial environments. Researchers can leave an ARU in the field for long periods of time, collecting data about the whereabouts and activities of a wide variety of animals.

Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of BirdScope.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library