Birds outfitted with 'backpacks' to research environmental change in Indiana

Biologist Alex Jahn investigates migration patterns of robins with tiny GPS trackers to inform an 'early detection system' of environmental shifts

As a child visiting his grandmother's farm in Illinois, Alex Jahn used to gaze up into the evening sky and watch Canada geese on their long flight home for summer.

Now a fellow with the Environmental Resilience Institute at IU, a part of the IU Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge initiative, Jahn is an expert on bird migration who studies how changes in bird behavior can shed light on environmental change.

Alex Jahn outfits a bird with a GPS tracker to study its migration patterns. Photos by James Brosher, Indiana University

"The idea that these geese had migrated all the way down to Texas and Louisiana and then headed back up north to Canada, it just blew my mind as a kid," said Jahn, who joined IU in 2018. "Maybe it's that birds are so small and yet accomplish these great marathons -- a great odyssey that most people don't even realize is happening right over their heads. Everyone who dedicates their life to science probably has a similar memory. It's the fascination that keeps you going."

Before joining IU, Jahn spent about a decade working in both South America and the U.S., studying migratory behavior in thrushes and a few other species. This included two years under a grant from the National Science Foundation to track scissor-tailed flycatchers and western kingbirds in Oklahoma, as well as four years as a visiting professor and researcher at São Paulo State University in Brazil. He also spent two years at the Smithsonian's Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C., conducting field work in Brazil on three species of thrush that never travel outside the tropics.

"One question in bird migration research is: Why do some birds travel all the way to the tropics every year to spend the winter, while others don't?" Jahn said. "We want to know more about different migratory strategies -- the distance, the speed -- as well as which birds are at greater risk from climate change based upon their particular behaviors."

Jahn's tools of the trade include GPS trackers -- or "tiny bird backpacks" -- weighting only 2 grams, which can follow a bird's movement anywhere in the world for a year; as well as miniscule, colored leg bands that identify individual birds upon their return to their capture location the following year.

At IU, Jahn is focused on tracking the American robin, a species of thrush that is surprisingly understudied despite being widespread across North America. (Always on the lookout for robin nests on campus, Jahn is rarely out of the office without binoculars. His favorite spot is the marshlands off the Jordan River near the Wendell Wright Education Building.) In addition to using the trackers and bands, Jahn also collects a small blood sample from each bird to test for diseases such as Lyme and avian malaria.

American robins can migrate as far north as northern Canada and as far south as Mexico. As warmer weather draw near in Indiana, Jahn also plans to do summer work on robins in Alaska. He also plans a trip to South America in October to continue research on tropical thrushes.

"Everything I'm doing here in Indiana with robins, I'm also doing in Brazil and Argentina with other species," Jahn said. "But this project isn't about saving the robins. Instead, we're interested in them as sentinels of ecosystem change. They're our 'canary in the coal mine.'"

Unlike mammals who can hibernate in lean times, he added, birds need food on a nearly hour-to-hour basis, which means they're powerful barometers of ecosystem health. Changes in their behavior give an early signal about other shifts down the food chain.

Description of the following video:

Meet the Research Fellows Helping IU Prepare for Environmental Change

Descriptive Transcript

[Video: An aerial shot of the Indiana University campus]

[Words appear: Indiana University Presents]

[Video: Alex Jahn shown seated in a lab addressing someone off screen]

[Words appear: Alex Jahn, Environmental Resilience Institute Research Fellow]

Jahn: We know that change is coming. There's a lot of indicators from across the nation. It's not just going to be wildfires in California and hurricanes on the East Coast. The Midwest is changing quickly.

[Video: Jahn walking on the Indiana University campus and working with a bird caught in a net]

Jahn: As that climate changes and as urbanization changes in the Midwest, understanding the changes that we're experiencing right now is going to be invaluable for future planning.

[Video: Andrea Webster shown seated in a conference room addressing someone off screen]

[Words appear: Andrea Webster, Environmental Resilience Institute Implementation Manager]

Webster: The more that we talk to people about it, the more that we publish news stories about it ...

[Video: A group of children are shown during a field trip at Kent Farm with Adam Fudickar and Dustin Brewer]

Webster: ... the more that we have our scientists engaging with school children, the more that people are going to start to understand ...

[Video: Fudickar interacts with children on the field trip]

Webster: ... how our lives are changing as a result.

[Video: Ranjan Muthukrishnan shown seated in a lab addressing someone off screen]

[Words appear: Ranjan Muthukrishnan, Environmental Resilience Institute Research Fellow]

Muthukrishnan: The Grand Challenge effort is really a statement of "we want to be having an effect on the world."

[Video: Tara Smiley and Danielle Peltier-Thompson working in a lab at Indiana University]

Smiley speaks in voiceover: The work we're doing with the Environmental Resilience Institute is ...

[Video: Smiley shown seated in a conference room addressing someone off screen]

[Words appear: Tara Smiley, Environmental Resilience Institute Research Fellow]

Smiley: ... really important for understanding change today and making forecasts for the future, so we can have ...

[Video: Smiley working with a bird feather under a microscope in a lab]

Smiley: ... more sustainable ecosystems, more sustainable farms.

[Video: Abigail Sullivan and Matthew Houser studying a map in the Environmental Resilience Institute, engaging in a discussion]

Muthukrishnan speaks in voiceover: With Abigail Sullivan and Matthew Houser, we're working a couple projects together to think about the spread of invasive species.

[Video: Muthukrishnan shown seated in a lab addressing someone off screen]

Muthukrishnan: Protecting our water quality is, you know, primary to human health.

[Video: Shows a scene from a lake]

Muthukrishnan speaks in voiceover: A lot of these native aquatic plants in these ecosystems, they actually do part of the work of water treatment for us.

[Video: Ducks stepping into the lake]

Muthukrishnan speaks in voiceover: The more work that the natural ecosystem does on its own, the less work that we have to do to add to that.

[Video: Fudickar and Brewer walking on the Indiana University campus, preparing their research setup]

Fudickar speaks in voiceover: The animals that we're studying are in people's backyards.

[Video: Fudickar and Brewer setting up a net]

Fudickar speaks in voiceover: The data that we're generating can help inform people that those animals that they've observed ever since they were kids in Indiana ...

[Video: Fudicker shown seated in an office addressing someone off screen]

[Words appear: Adam Fudickar, Environmental Resilience Institute Research Fellow]

Fudicker: ... that we are impacting their populations ...

[Video: Fudickar and Brewer working to place a tracker on a bird]

Fudicker speaks in voiceover: ... and there are potentially ways to lessen our impact on them. We are putting little accelerometers on song sparrows.

[Video: zooms in on an accelerometer on the song sparrow]

Fudicker: Accelerometers, we developed with ...

[Video: Fudicker shown seated in an office addressing someone off screen]

Fudicker: ... a computer science faculty member here at IU ...

[Video: Fudickar and Brewer working in a field on the Indiana University campus, places a tracker on a sparrow's leg]

Fudicker speaks in voiceover: ... and we think that that's going to provide insight into identifying ways ...

[Video: Fudicker shown sitting on the ground outside, speaking to someone off camera]

Fudicker: ... to mitigate the impacts of future urbanization ...

[Video: Fudicker and Brewer shown working on the Indiana University campus]

Fudicker: ... on other animal populations.

[Video: Aerial shot of Indiana University campus]

Jahn speaks in voiceover: So what we're trying to figure out is where do individual ...

[Video: Jahn shown working with birds on the Indiana University campus]

Jahn speaks in voiceover: ... robins go to spend the winter, and how's that changing with climate change and habitat change and urbanization?

[Video: Jahn and Susan Reed working with a robin at a table, adding a tracker to a bird]

Jahn speaks in voiceover: With that information, we'll be armed with data on ...

[Video: Jahn shown seated in a lab addressing someone off screen]

Jahn: ... their potential to transport diseases, such as Lyme.

[Video: Jahn on the Indiana University campus, releasing the robin into a bush]

Jahn: All right, come back next year.

[Video: Smiley shown seated in a conference room addressing someone off screen]:

Smiley: I've never been part of something that's taking this really holistic view of environmental change ...

[Video: Smiley in the lab looking in a microscope]

Smiley speaks in voiceover: ... and its impact on society.

[Jahn in the field, walking with a bird in his hand]

Fudickar speaks in a voiceover: We only have one planet ...

[Video: Jahn releases the bird]

Fudicker speaks in voiceover: ... and we only have one Indiana.

[Video: Closeup of bird in a woman's hand; the bird then flies away]

Fudicker speaks in voiceover: If we value nature, then we ...

[Video: Fudicker shown seated in an office addressing someone off screen]

Fudicker: ... can work towards identifying ways to lessen ...

[Video: Jahn on the Indiana University campus with a bird in his hand]

Fudicker: ... our impact in the future.

[Screen fades to aerial of IU Bloomington's campus.]

[Words appear: Indiana University Grand Challenges Prepared for Environmental Change]

[Screen fades to black]

Video by Mays Entertainment

"Birds are affected by the same environmental processes, such as rainfall, that drive the timing of flowering and fruiting, of crops and insects," he said.

Some of the work connecting these dots occurs in collaboration with other colleagues who track bird and animal species through the Movement Ecology Group of the Environmental Resilience Institute at IU. For example, the birds' blood samples will inform the institute's tick monitoring project, which seeks to understand how bug-borne diseases are spreading in the state.

Jahn is also working with another of the institute's fellows, Tara Smiley, to study bird ecology using isotopic analysis. The same method used to detect drugs in human hair can reveal details about birds' movements and diet from a single feather.

Moreover, Jahn said his recruitment under IU's Grand Challenges Program connects him with collaborators beyond biology, including plans to work with students from the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington, as well as biology graduate students.

"This is a real pioneering project in many ways," he said. "While other universities have grand challenges, they aren't commonly focused on environmental change -- or they aren't on the same scale as IU's. We're approaching this topic from so many angles -- not only in terms of biology, but also policy, conservation law, history, art and communications.

"If there's anything we've learned over the past few years, you simply can't tackle an issue as large as a grand challenge without being truly interdisciplinary."

More updates on IU's Grand Challenge initiatives