Herald and Journal Technology Section, August 10, 1998

Technology is for the birds at Raptor Center


Two teenage boys were hunting in a wildlife sanctuary in northern Wisconsin.

It was a frustrating day, so finally they just shot the next thing that moved.They shot what they thought was a hawk.

When they came upon their prey, they realized it was a golden eagle they had felled. Whether out of fear of being discovered or just vengeance, the boys beat the bird with sticks and left it for dead.

Shortly after, a logger found the eagle. Not certain what to do, he carefully held the bird between its wings out his truck window and drove the to the ranger's station.

The bird was then transported to The Raptor Center on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. It arrived with multiple injuries, a gun shot wound in the chest, and blind.

The staff and volunteers called the bird Poloma, "peaceful dove." The Raptor Center was home to Poloma for six months. As she rehabilitated, she also underwent flight exercises, regained her sight and was then ready for release.

After untold hours of working with Poloma, her release back into the wild in northern Wisconsin was for all involved a poignant moment to remember.

The Raptor Center has treated and released thousands of birds since its inception in 1973; more than 1,000 bald eagles in that time alone. Still on the endangered species list, it's important to know where exactly do these eagles go after they're released? How do they assimilate back into the wild after rehabilitation?

"We wanted to see what happens," said Ron Osterbauer, associate director for The Raptor Center.

The center's investment of time, training, research and emotion through its staff and volunteers, not to mention the dollars from corporations, foundations and individuals, deserved an answer.

That answer came in a small, one-ounce aluminum backpack equipped with a satellite transmitter. It was an initial gift of $30,000 from Boise Cascade that got "EagleTrack" up and running.

Osterbauer said they hope to better understand how these rehabilitated birds survive once they are returned to the wild, and how they get along with uninjured "wild" eagles.

Using the global positioning system, The Raptor Center tracks the path of two bald eagles, Lucky Lindy and the other referred to as bird 20277 ­ which is his transmitter number.

The satellite trackings are also posted on the center's Web site along with a case history for each bald eagle.

"The Internet gives kids the opportunity to do live science," Osterbauer said.

Checking out the Web site at www.raptor.cvm.umn.edu, you will learn that Bird 20277 was released May 3 from Fort Snelling State Park and as of June 29 was southeast of Spooner, Wis. Lucky Lindy, released from Mounds Park in St. Paul on May 20, was in west Forest Lake as of July 5.

The transmitter's worn just like a backpack. Nylon straps extend from the box, go under the wings and are sewn on at the breastplate with biodegradable thread. The thread disintegrates in about 18 months causing the backpack to fall off. At that time, it's usually no longer transmitting, since the battery's life-span is only about eight to ten months.

Osterbauer said a schedule is sent to the manufacturer as to when the center wants locations transmitted.That cycle is then programmed into the backpack's processor chip.

For example, if the bird is released in the spring, the transmitter is on a 10-day cycle. In mid-August, when migration begins, it switches to a two-day cycle. With a two-day cycle, it can be determined where the bird's winter stopovers are as the bird migrates southward.

"There are only two manufacturers in the world who make these, Osterbauer said, "Microtelemetry in Washington, D.C., (who The Raptor Center uses), and another firm in Japan."

In Japan, work on an even smaller transmitter is being done to attach song birds to study why their population is decreasing in that region, Osterbauer said.

Neither is the technology new, nor is using satellite transmitters for The Raptor Center.

For the past four years, they have been studying the migratory routes of osprey through satellite tracking. It was a $250,000 grant from the Minnesota Legislature on the recommendation of the Legislative Committee on Minnesota Resources (LCMAR) that made the project a reality. The program was dubbed "Highway to the Tropics."

"We were interested in using satellite telemetry," said Osterbauer. "We began with the osprey because they are a tropical migrant and there are a lot of them. We knew their start and finish points but we didn't know the route they took to get there. We didn't know where exactly their winter stops were."

One osprey was actually tracked traveling through Hurricane Andrew en route to South America.

Another migratory raptor, Swainson's hawk, is also tracked via satellite. A decline in the hawk's population led to an investigation of South America areas where they winter. More than 4,000 hawks were found dead due to pesticide poisoning.

The Raptor Center is tracking two Swainson's hawks to determine if they winter in these areas.

What the future holds

The Raptor Center recently applied for a grant from Disney to study bald eagles in the Disney World preserve in Florida.

"We want to see if Florida eagles stay there or eventually migrate northward," Osterbauer said.

In the works, is a project to trap bald eagles wintering here and place transmitters on them to see where they come from. Another project is to outfit baby osprey with transmitters to learn if they really do spend their first three or four years in South America.

The peregrine falcon will also be tracked to watch how they assimilate back into the wild. The species saw a tremendous decline in numbers due to the use of the chemical DDT. Now, bred in captivity, it's the first bird population on which their is DNA information, said Osterbauer.

So, why is it important to study habits or migratory routes of birds?

Osterbauer explained that as countries continue to develop, it's necessary to the conservation of these species to know their key migration routes. These routes and winter stopovers can be incorporated into land use plans.

Technology allows us to traverse the globe at home via the Internet, travel in cars equipped with satellite-mapping systems or have weapon systems that pinpoint targets with minute accuracy, but it also aids in preserving nature so we can still watch a bald eagle soar and swoop over the Mississippi.

Technology really is for the birds.

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