Charting bird migrations by using tiny backpacks

Birds are famous for airborne speed and endurance, wrote The New York Times Feb. 13. Some have been clocked flying 60 miles per hour or more. Others make annual migrations from Alaska to New Zealand, non-stop.

But for scientists, tracking birds as they perform those feats has been an intractable problem. Now researchers think they have cracked it with a novel device – a tiny bird backpack that contains sophisticated sensors and weighs less than a dime.

The new technology has opened up vast new possibilities for bird researchers. Already, it is yielding surprising findings – for example, that some birds fly even faster than previously thought. But its real importance, biologists say, is the opportunity to unlock mysteries of bird migration that could help preserve species threatened by habitat loss and climate change.

“We knew that purple martins went to Brazil and wood thrush went to Central America,” said Bridget Stutchbury, a biologist in York University’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, who, with colleagues, fitted birds from the species with the sensors and mapped their migrations last year. “But the details of how an individual gets there, what routes they take, how fast they fly, how often they stop to rest – these are the kinds of details we have never been able to have.”

The research, reported Friday in the journal Science, involved 34 birds, but only seven were recovered with their sensors. The tracking system relies on instruments called solar geolocators that collect and store data on where the birds are in relation to the sun. Researchers remove the sensors, download the information and calculate where the birds were, and when they were there.

“If the bird were on a hillside you’d get a slightly wrong time,” Stutchbury said. “If it were a cloudy day you would get a slightly wrong time. But these devices are accurate enough, within five or 10 kilometres,” about three to six miles.

For her research, Stutchbury needed instruments small enough and light enough for a tiny songbird. Then, at a 2006 conference, British researchers from the British Antarctic Survey, said they had miniaturized their sensors to 1.5 grams. “That for me was a magic number,” she said. “I could put it on a large songbird.”

  • Migratory songbirds wearing tiny “backpacks” consisting of a data chip encased in clear plastic have stripped away the mystery of their epic seasonal voyages between North and South America, revealing not only their routes and resting places but the remarkable speed at which they can travel, wrote The Washington Post Feb. 13.

“I don’t think anybody had any idea these little birds could fly that fast,” said Bridget Stutchbury, lead author of a paper published on Science Express, the online version of the journal Science. Stutchbury, a biology professor at Canada’s York University, noted that previous studies suggested they travelled a third as fast.

  • New research shows that little songbirds cover more than 300 miles a day on their annual migrations, flabbergasting scientists who expected a much slower flight, wrote the Associated Press Feb. 13. “The migration was surprisingly fast,” said Bridget Stutchbury, a professor of biology at York University in Toronto, Canada. Previous estimates clocked the birds at only 90 or so miles a day.
  • For decades, the closest scientists came to studying the migration patterns of songbirds was to stalk them for a few days at a time in a small aircraft, wrote The Globe and Mail Feb. 13.

Data gathered by York University biologist Bridget Stutchbury show that some songbirds make the trip from the Amazon Basin to their northern US breeding grounds in just two weeks – based on the best available data, scientists had previously guessed the trip would take about a month. The study marks the first time anyone has mapped songbird migration routes to the tropics and back. “It’s completely changed the way we look at these little birds,” Stutchbury said.

Before the use of geolocators, researchers relied on radio transmitters to track bird migrations. Stutchbury said the best previous data she had came from a researcher who followed the birds in a plane for about four days – in 1973. “Based on other studies, we had little glimpses of what these birds can do,” Stutchbury said. “We expected [the birds’ travel time would be] about a month.”

Stutchbury said information she collects could prove vital to the conservation of songbirds, whose numbers have plummeted.

  • One purple martin, fitted with a tiny geolocating “backpack”, flew 7,500 kilometres from the Amazon Basin to North America in just 13 days, wrote the Ottawa Citizen Feb. 13.

The swallow averaged 577 kilometres a day as it high-tailed it back to its breeding ground last spring, say researchers who describe the remarkable journey in the journal Science today.

“It’s really stunning, I don’t think anyone had any idea that these little songbirds could travel this fast,” says biologist Bridget Stutchbury, York University in Toronto, who is leading the international project that shows migrating songbirds fly three times faster than expected.

Stutchbury said the project gives an intriguing “window” on migration. Not only has it shown the birds can fly faster than expected, but it also indicates songbird migration rate is two to six times more rapid in spring than in the fall. One purple martin took 43 days to reach Brazil in the fall, but returned in the spring in just 13 days. “They have very high motivation to return in spring,” Stutchbury said. Early arrivals have a better chance of scoring high-quality territory and mates, she says.

  • In groundbreaking research, Canadian scientists have for the first time tracked the flight paths of migrating songbirds by fitting them with tiny geolocators carried in miniature backpacks, wrote The Canadian Press Feb. 12.

“Never before has anyone been able to track songbirds for their entire migratory trip,” said lead investigator Bridget Stutchbury, a professor of biology at Toronto’s York University. “One aspect of the research is looking at really this miracle of migration and how these little birds are able to make these long trips,” Stutchbury said. “And these geolocators allow us for the first time to do a start-to-finish map.”

But the research isn’t only about charting migration routes – it’s also about species conservation, Stutchbury said. Wood thrush numbers have declined by about 30 per cent since the mid-1960s, just one example of how songbird populations worldwide have plummeted over the last 30 to 40 years. “They’re in such a tailspin that there’s a real sense of urgency to use geolocators to try to identify what’s causing the problems,” said Stutchbury, adding that scientists need to understand whether changes in habitat in either the breeding or wintering grounds are “driving the numbers down.”

  • “I’m the first person to be able to track a songbird all the way to its wintering grounds and back, so it just opens the doors,” said Stutchbury in an interview on CBC-TV’s “The National” Feb. 12.
  • Canadian scientists are the first in the world to come up with a way to track the annual migration of palm-sized songbirds, wrote The Toronto Sun Feb. 13. The York University researchers outfitted a number of wood thrushes and purple martins with tiny geolocators carried in miniature backpacks. Lead researcher Bridget Stutchbury says data showed songbirds can fly more than 500 km a day, and their migration rate was up to six times faster heading north in the spring than their trip south in the fall. The findings are in this week’s issue of Science.

Campaign to oust student leaders sparks tension 

A campaign to oust student leaders at York University has ignited simmering tensions between Arab and Jewish students on campus after a small angry crowd disrupted a news conference earlier this week, wrote The Globe and Mail Feb. 13.

The incident  took place after an event to announce that students had gathered enough support to recall the five executives of York’s student government. Students involved in the initiative collected more than 5,000 signatures, enough to trigger a new election for the student leaders.

Students organizing the recall said they were upset by the York Federation of Students’ (YFS) support for the demands of striking teaching assistants and contract faculty during the 12-week strike that ended Feb. 2.

The news conference was cut short Wednesday night when a raucous group of students who were not allowed into the event began chanting slogans and banging on the walls.

Event organizers later gathered in the York office of Hillel, a Jewish campus group, where they invited members of the media.

A group of protesters gathered outside the door and began chanting slogans, which included “Zionism is racism,” said Elinor Izmaylov, one of the organizers of the recall campaign.

The group called police, who escorted them out of the office, past the crowd.

Izmaylov, who is Jewish, said the recall effort involved students from a variety of backgrounds, but has turned into a clash over Middle East politics.

Krisna Saravanamuttu, YFS vice-president of equity, who also attended the news conference, said there were no anti-Semitic chants. “That is categorically false. I heard nothing of that nature at all,” he said, adding that protesters chanted “racism off campus” and “students united will never be defeated.”

Saravanamuttu said about 80 students showed up to the news conference to protest against a rise in racism and sexism on campus since the start of the campaign to oust the student executive. He said organizers would not let them in and refused to move the news conference to a bigger room.

Yesterday, students from both sides demonstrated on campus.

“There’s a number of issues going on,” said York Hillel president Daniel Ferman. “Some are interconnected and some have been made to be interconnected when they’re not.”

Ferman said the York Federation of Students is closely aligned with the group Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). When asked whether a similar alignment existed between Hillel and the student groups trying to get rid of the student executive, he said. “There’s definitely several organizers who are members, but I wouldn’t create that analogy.”

A representative for SAIA did not respond to a request for comment.

Tensions appear to have been growing over the volatile Israel-Palestine issue – a source of argument and occasionally altercation at other Canadian universities – for some time at York. The student government recently voted to condemn Israeli attacks on educational institutions in Gaza, a decision that drew criticism and support from students along ideological lines.

York spokesperson Alex Bilyk said the University is investigating Wednesday night’s incident. “We take these things very seriously,” he said.

  • Allegations of an anti-Semitic outburst at York University drew condemnation yesterday from the Jewish community amid concerns of mounting hostility on the school’s campus, wrote the National Post Feb. 13.

The University’s Hillel student group contend its members were intimidated following a news conference on Wednesday.

Hillel and other organizations held the event to call for the ouster of the York Federation of Students executive, who backed the school’s teaching assistants during the recent 12-week strike.

Representatives of the student federation, along with members of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), a pro-Palestinian group, disrupted the news conference with chants of “Zionism is racism” and “Shame on Hillel,” according to Daniel Ferman, Hillel’s president.

The press conference was shut down but the same group of students later pursued Ferman and other participants in the press conference to Hillel’s lounge in York’s Student Centre. Approximately 100 people swarmed outside the lounge, taunting the students inside and threatening to break the glass, Ferman said. “We basically kept our students inside – it was mostly Jewish students but there were non-Jewish students too,” he said. “We were basically being held hostage in our own space.”

The students inside the lounge called for help and were eventually escorted off campus by University security and police.

Representatives of the York Federation of Students did not respond to requests for comment yesterday. A representative of SAIA said it was possible some of the group’s members were present on Wednesday but said his organization did not plan or sanction the confrontation. “My understanding is whatever happened was spontaneous,” said York student Dan Freeman-Maloy, who emphasized he was not present for the outburst.

SAIA did organize a protest on the York campus yesterday, with roughly 50 students gathering in the foyer of one of the school’s central buildings to decry Israel’s recent military action in the Gaza strip. Less than five minutes into the protest, a second group of students and representatives of various Jewish groups marched into the foyer to show their support for Israel. Many of the pro-Israel protesters wore T-shirts proclaiming “Jews Need Not Fear Here,” a response to the conflict on Wednesday. The two sides staged parallel protests in the space for an hour, separated by a line of security guards.

Members of SAIA yesterday accused the Jewish groups of attempting to disrupt a legitimate demonstration. “They are trying to turn them into unproductive shouting matches and sideline the issue,” Freeman-Maloy said.

  • Police were called to York University after “anti-Semitic attacks on innocent students”, a Jewish student group charged yesterday, wrote The Toronto Sun Feb. 13.

Where you’ve been on Net not private, judge rules

An Ontario Superior Court ruling could allow police to routinely use Internet protocol addresses to find out the names of people online, without any need for a search warrant, wrote the National Post Feb. 13.

Justice Lynne Leitch found that there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy” in subscriber information kept by Internet service providers, in a decision issued this week.  The ruling is a significant victory for police investigating such crimes as possession of child pornography, while privacy advocates warn there are broad implications even for law-abiding Internet users.

“There is no confidentiality left on the Internet if this ruling stands,” said James Stribopoulos, a law professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School.

Judge Leitch made the ruling in a possession of child pornography case in southwestern Ontario.

Judge Leitch accepted the arguments of Crown attorney Elizabeth Maguire that the information is similar to what is in a phone book. The reasoning of the judge misses the context of what police are seeking, suggested Stribopoulos. “It is not just your name; it is your whole Internet surfing history. Up until now, there was privacy. An IP address is not your name; it is a 10-digit number. A lot more people would be apprehensive if they knew their name was being left everywhere they went,” he said.

This information should require police to obtain a search warrant if there is suspected criminal activity, Stribopoulos said. Judges are accepting the argument that this is “just your name” because “everyone wants to get at the child abusers,” he said. There is an irony that exemptions in federal privacy legislation have been used to increase police powers and potentially reduce privacy rights, Stribopoulos said.

US actions not an indictment of NAFTA

Some US firms – the worst-performing ones – will use the recession as a smokescreen to eliminate foreign competitors, wrote University of Toronto Professor Daniel Trefler in an article about Buy American provisions in recent US programs to stimulate the economy in The Globe and Mail Feb. 13. This will hurt Canada.

But we must avoid treating this as an overall indictment of NAFTA. In fact, that deal has had a huge positive impact on Canadian manufacturing productivity, raising it by 13 per cent. Recent research from, among others, Alla Lileeva, economics professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, John Baldwin of Statistics Canada and me, has shown precisely from where these gains have come.

York professor wins prestigious teaching award

A York senior lecturer in the Faculty of Science & Engineering is one of 10 recipients of the 3M National Teaching Fellowship for 2009, wrote the North York Mirror Feb. 11. Hamzeh Roumani, the only recipient from a Greater Toronto Area university, said the distinction felt “great”.

Roumani, a computer science & engineering professor and North York resident, learned of his win in early February. “It feels great when you are recognized by your peers,” he said. “York emphasizes the teaching aspect more than other universities. They really want to create a learning centre.”

The annual award, presented by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education in partnership with 3M Canada Company, recognizes excellence in university teaching. Since 1986, 238 individuals from 45 Canadian universities have received the award, including 10 from York University.

Roumani is credited with implementing a new way of teaching after becoming disgruntled with the system about a decade ago. “It wasn’t only that I didn’t like what other professors were doing, I didn’t like what I was doing,” he said. “The intentions were good but the students were not learning. After 2000, I implemented my directives.”

The two directives focused on simple theories: If you want to teach someone to drive, don’t open the hood and if you want to teach someone how to skate, don’t do it off the ice. “If you want to go faster you push on the accelerator, you don’t talk about spark plugs,” he said. “We spend a lot of time on the how and forget the what. If you teach people how to write a computer program, it’s all by words. You never let them explore it. The teaching style of ‘I’ll tell you how to connect the dots’ is really wrong. You need to set it up to let them play.”

Once Roumani incorporated his directives into a manual, he noticed a change in the students’ interest levels. “People are suddenly interested,” he said. “If you already know how to drive a car you might be interested in what’s under the hood but if you don’t, why do you care?” Roumani received his PhD degree in theoretical physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1980. He has been in academia at various physics and computer science departments and has also undertaken numerous consulting projects in the software development field for the banking and construction industries.

Roumani’s work has been recognized through numerous awards, including York’s Excellence in Teaching Award from the Faculty of Science & Engineering and the provincewide Leadership in Faculty Teaching Award (LIFT) in 2007. Arshad Ahmad, program coordinator of the 3M National Teaching Fellowships, said Roumani was “one of the most student-centred teachers we read about. The subject matter he teaches is not easy to get excited about,” he said. “Hamzeh is remarkable and a risk taker. He speaks to the heart and soul of the award.”

Ad agencies caught in recession backlash

After studying business as an undergraduate at York University in Toronto, but leaving before completing his degree, entrepreneur Miles Nadal used a $500 cash advance on his Visa card in 1980 to open a commercial photography studio, Action Photographics, wrote the Ottawa Citizen Feb. 13. Now, as chair and chief executive officer of Toronto-based MDC Partners Inc., the world’s ninth-largest marketing communications firm, he has a stake in some of the hottest advertising and design agencies in the world.

MDC controls agencies that include Zig, Henderson Bas and Allard Johnson in Canada. In the United States, notable companies operating under the MDC umbrella include Zyman Group, Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners LLC and Miami-based Crispin Porter + Bogusky, a multiple-award winning agency whose clients include Burger King Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Volkswagen AG.

Award-winning alum launches new production

With two prominent theatre awards under her belt in 2008, writer and actress Anusree Roy (BA Spec. Hons. ’06) is at it again, wrote Feb. 11. Hoping to keep up momentum from her Dora Award-winning, one-woman production, Pyaasa, the York resident is busy putting together the pieces of her newest work, Letters to my Grandma, scheduled to debut in March.

She is working with the same production team again, with Thomas Morgan Jones directing and David DeGrow as lighting designer. Originally meeting in university, they are now known as Theatre Jones Roy. “As young theatre makers, we felt like we had something to say and we formed this company,” said Roy, a York University alumna. “One great thing that has come out of Pyaasa is a huge amount of community support for our projects.” Letters to my Grandma deals with the struggles of immigration and youth, following the story of a young woman and her grandmother who emigrated from India to Toronto after the Second World War.

York grad’s new play about love includes a Valentine’s party

Adam Kelly‘s new play, Alan’s Search for the Best Girl in Montreal, is all about love, wrote The Gazette ( Montreal) Feb. 13. So there’s no coincidence that it’s timed for Valentine’s Day. In fact, there’s even a Valentine’s Day party in Theatre 314’s third-floor-loft performance space after the show tomorrow night.

Raised in Pierrefonds and educated at Concordia (BFA) and York University (MFA ’01), Kelly had just returned from spending some time in New York last spring when he hooked up with Theatre 314 via an ad on Craigslist.