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By Beth Bacheldor

RFID Tags Give Researchers New Insight into Hummingbird Migration Behaviors

Researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough tagged ruby-throated hummingbirds with embedded RFID-enabled passive integrated transponders in order to study their migration behaviors, including some birds' appetites for fattening up before they fly south.

To conduct their study, the scientists trapped ruby-throated hummingbirds between May and September of 2013 and 2014, implanting them with glass-encased 144 kHz RFID tags compliant with the ISO 11784 and 11785 standards. The researchers created artificial feeding stations that had digital scales and RFID antennas and readers affixed to them; the stations were placed in open meadows surrounded by mixed forests. When the birds stopped to feed, the station captured the ID number transmitted by their microchips, and also weighed them. That data was then used to better understand the hummingbirds' eating habits as they migrate.

The scientists used readers that included a Destron Fearing FS2001F-ISO reader supplied by Biomark, a low-power, low-cost RFID antenna and reader designed by University of Oklahoma biology professor Eli Bridge, and 7-millimeter-long PICO-ID ISO transponders supplied by UNO.

The study found that the hummingbirds that fatten up early on spent more time at feeders in order to gain weight rapidly, in some cases putting on as much as 35 to 40 percent of their body mass during the four days leading up to migration. However, the researchers discovered that no juvenile birds were fattening up, which suggests that the fattening could be a learned behavior based on migration experience.

The researchers, who included University of Toronto Associate Professor Ken Welch, received funding from the National Geographic Society and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to carry out their project. The group described their findings in a scientific paper, titled Premigratory ruby-throated hummingbirds, Archilochus colubris, exhibit multiple strategies for fuelling migration, published online by the scientific journal Animal Behaviour.

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