Notes from the Field

Back to Uncovering a Migration Mystery

April 19th, 2017 by Ruthie Oliver, Columbia University/LDEO

We are back on the search for Space Robins to help us solve our migration mystery! Remember, last year we set out to track American robins migrating through Canada and Alaska to understand where they go and why. Check out our first post from last year to learn more about the project in general. With the help of our friends Nicole and Richard Krikun of the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory and Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation and mini-GPS units from Lotek, we successfully followed fifteen robins to their breeding grounds. Check out the map below to see where our Space Robins went!

This year, our team of researchers has changed a bit. I’m Ruthie, a student at Columbia University and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory working on my Ph.D. in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. My friends, and birding experts, Nicole and Richard will be helping me again. But this year my mom Kitty, a bird enthusiast, will be tagging along.

Ruthie Oliver and Nicole Krikun in front of a snowy Boreal Centre.

Kitty Oliver, the newest Space Robin team member.

We are curious to discover what types of environmental conditions might cause robins to change their movements as they search for a place to breed and raise their chicks. Because environmental conditions can change quite bit from year to year, especially in the arctic tundra and boreal forest, we are back in Alberta to find 30 more robins to help us untangle their migration mystery. This year we are hoping that if environmental conditions, like snow cover, are different from last year it will help us understand what types of conditions robins prefer when they travel.

You are what you eat…

If you notice on the map of our robins from last year, we know where they ended their journey, but we don’t know where they started. Because of this we don’t know which robin actually traveled the farthest. Another migration mystery! Do you have any guesses on where the robins might be coming from? Do you have any ideas how we might figure out where our robins spent the winter?

Remember the saying “you are what you eat”? It’s true! Foods that are grown in different places are different when you look at them very closely by studying the atoms that they’re made of. Atoms of the same element can weigh different amounts and are called isotopes. The amount of different isotopes found in a plant depends on the type of plant and where it was grown. The isotopes in plants show up in the feathers and toenails of robins. So this year, we will collect feathers and toenail clippings from our robins. By looking at the carbon and hydrogen isotopes of the feathers and toenail clippings, we will be able to learn about where our robins are coming from. Click here to learn more about isotopes.

Spring and snow in the boreal forest

Robins aren’t the only ones who are affected by the environment. When we landed in Edmonton, Alberta on Friday we were all set to drive 3 hours north the Boreal Centre. But a big snowstorm made the trip too difficult, so we had to wait for the weather to improve before completing our migration. As we waited in Edmonton, we could only imagine that the robins were probably hunkered down waiting out the storm too. The next day as we drove, we got a glimpse of what the boreal forest looks like in the winter.

With snow on the ground and cold temperatures, we weren’t optimistic about catching many robins at the Boreal Centre very soon. While we waited we prepared our GPS backpacks. We wanted make sure they fit the robins, but we needed a robin to a measure on. Usually we don’t want to lure robins in with calls because birds that respond are likely to be breeding in the area and are no longer migrating. But since we just wanted to try out suiting up a Space Robin, we didn’t mind if it was living around here. So we downloaded robin calls to play through a speaker and set out a decoy stuffed bird. We got the attention of our local robin we had seen around, but before we knew it we had attracted quite a crowd! About two-dozen robins took to perching in the tree near our speaker to try to figure out who was singing. Because they were in such a big group, it seemed like they were most likely still migrating, but just taking a break in the snow.



Our decoy robin (actually a Red-winged blackbird stuffed animal) singing.

Waiting behind the nets for robins to come.

Robins coming over to check out what all the singing is about.

And that’s how we met our first two Space Robins—Dream and Lightning Guinea Pig!

Here’s how we suit up a Space Robin:


Check back here for updates as we find our next Space Robins!


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23 Responses to “Back to Uncovering a Migration Mystery”

  1. willUSA says:

    I thought it was amazing how the different plants have different atom weights. Its even cooler how you can tell where they come from from toenail clippings.

  2. Patrick says:

    Wow! I never knew that robins flew so far for migration. I was also very interested in isotopes. Looking at the map i saw that paul flew way further than the other robins.

  3. Nolan says:

    I didn’t think that you would catch any robins in that weather, but you did! Do you get those calls on the speaker from real birds, or is it made on the computer? I hope maybe i could track robins or other animals someday!

  4. Ciara says:

    It is very interesting how you out of so many robins around the net only two flew in to it. I wounder why?

  5. Daniela says:

    I never knew that the food that the robins eat can tell where the robins come from. That’s really cool!

  6. Arpi says:

    I found it so interesting that so many robins came to find out who was singing. It was also interesting on how last year’s birds had so many different distances.

  7. Clare M. says:

    It was smart to put out a bird decoy. dream was my name for a robin I cant wait to track her/him. The boreal forest looked amazing so much snow. waiting for your next post.

  8. Shayan says:

    I never knew so many factors are incorporated into where a robin migrates. I was amazed when i found out that where a robin goes is based on their weather preference and different weathers can change a robins movements.. Its really fascinating that by a robin’s nail clippings and feathers you can found out where they started from. Keep up the research!

  9. Olivia says:

    It’s really interesting that you can find out where the birds came from by what they eat, and by the color of their feathers and toe nail clippings

  10. Sam says:

    It was so interesting that the stuffed bird you used brought a lot of robins over to see who’s singing. I can’t wait to see the next space robins that you tag. The boreal forest seems cold with snow but it’s very interesting that the robins know how to adapt to the cold weather.

  11. Michael says:

    I learned a lot from this I never new that robins went out when snow was still on the ground I thought they stay in there homes until the snow all melted. Another thing that I didn’t know was that a decoy bird could actually work to lure in robins.

  12. Isabella says:

    I found it really interesting that you are what you eat. Also I never knew that you used a decoy robin, I think that’s really cool.Dream and Lightning Guinea Pig are really cute.

  13. Hela Giaever says:

    Very interesting! It is amazing, that so many robins would come so fast, from just a song. I wonder if they knew it wasn’t an actual robin. It is outstanding that one robin can travel so far. How far exactly is it? What you are doing is terrific, keep up the robin catching!

  14. Siena says:

    I really never knew the saying “you are what you eat” it is very intresting to know if you eat a specific food that states were you live. like if i ate maybe a pine apple that maybe means that they came maybe from a tropical place or a hot one! I really like this blog its awesome!

  15. Sofia :) says:

    Reading about Robins was very fascinating.I especially loved learning about how Robins travel with mini GPS backpacks o them.Before I read about this I was worried that the backpacks hurt them,but now i understand that they are light enough to carry.Also seeing the pictures was amazing. I learned a lot of new things that i didn’t know before,and I would love to learn more!

  16. Hannah says:

    That must’ve been a lot of fun there. Wow I did not know that it would of been that cold in boreal forest. That looks freezing! Something I learned was that sometimes you have to use the bird caller to catch the birds also that you had to hide when the robins came into the net. That is very interesting!

  17. Daniel says:

    Wow, I didn’t know the saying “you are what you eat” was true! I thought it was just a saying. Great that you have gotten your fist 2 robins now 28 more to go.

  18. ryan says:

    Do most birds fall for the net trick

  19. Julia says:

    I wonder what its like to be in the boreal forest. It must be very cold. I think its very cool that you can track the birds with gps to see their journey. Another thing i thought was cool is that you can tell where the robins come from by the food that they eat!!

  20. Ella says:

    Wow!!! There must a lot more work than I thought to catching and tagging robins!!!! It is so amazing how a singing plush decoy can attract so many birds!! The tags must be so resilient to the cold weather and snow!