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RFID Brings Visibility to Hummingbirds at UC Davis

The multi-year university research project is tracking tagged hummingbirds as they approach RFID-enabled feeders, in order to better understand visitation patterns and the potential for disease transmission.
By Claire Swedberg
Jan 16, 2019

Researchers at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) are collecting data regarding feeder visitations by hummingbirds, with the help of RFID readers stationed at bird feeders and 134.2 kHz LF RFID tags embedded in the backs of the small pollinators. By identifying when specific birds visit particular feeders, and in the company of which other birds, the researchers are gaining an understanding of the contact activity and network of hummingbirds at feeders and how it might related to disease transmission.

Traditionally, hummingbirds—some of the world's smallest birds—have been tracked via leg bands, but those can require that a bird first be captured with a net so researchers can physically examine the band. That makes RFID a good alternative, the team explains.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Kerlin
The study, conducted by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the university's EpiCenter for Disease Dynamics, is not the first to use RFID to track hummingbirds, says Lisa Tell, an avian veterinarian at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the director of the Hummingbird Health and Conservation Program. However, she believes it is the first to solve a problem that faced previous studies: how to track more than a single bird at a feeder at once, using LF RFID tag reads.

"RFID has been used before at feeders to monitor the presence of hummingbirds," Tell says. A reader can detect an LF-tagged bird at a distance of about 6 inches. In fact, because hummingbirds are so small, RFID is a technology well suited for tracking them. GPS units, Tell explains, would be too heavy for the birds to carry. However, the miniaturized version of animal tags, known as passive integrated transponders (PITs) and commonly used to track pets, can be carried by a hummingbird without impacting its flight. The devices weigh approximately 0.01 gram (0.0004 ounce) and measure 8 millimeters (0.3 inch) in length.

Attaching the tag non-invasively has been challenging for researchers in earlier studies, Tell says. They have tried adhering the tags to the birds' back via eyelash glue, as well as inserting them under the skin and then sealing the skin with glue. However, the glue can be hazardous for hummingbirds if any trace gets onto the animals' wings. Therefore, the UC Davis researchers embedded the tags under the birds' skin on their dorsal area, then closed the incision via a single stitch. The team tagged 230 birds of two species—Anna's hummingbirds and Allen's hummingbirds—in this way.

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