News from the Columbia Climate School

Migration Mysteries of the American Robin

Robin
American robin. Photo: Brian Weeks

(This post was updated on April 19, 2016.)

Ecologist Natalie Boelman is headed back to the far north to study birds—this time to the town of Slave Lake, in northern Alberta, Canada, to track the migration of American robins. She will have some schoolchildren in New York remotely helping her as she and her colleagues get to work.

Migrating birds and other animals and plants are feeling the effects of warming climate, particularly in North America’s arctic tundra and boreal forests, where the climate is changing faster than the global average. A consortium of U.S. and Canadian researchers is starting a 10-year campaign to study tundra and boreal ecosystems under climate change. Among other things, they are putting satellite trackers on animals including eagles, caribou, wolves and bears, to observe their behavior in relation to fires, insect outbreaks, snow cover and other factors.

Natalie Boelman
Natalie Boelman

Boelman, from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is focused on American robins that migrate to the region to breed and fatten up on a rich diet of insects. At Slave Lake, she and two graduate students from Columbia  plan to mist-net three dozen robins on their way to their breeding grounds, equip them with mini GPS tags, and set them free to continue their migration northward. Courtesy of Boelman and a new app, 4th- and 5th-grade students at Rockland County’s Cottage Lane Elementary School will name each bird, and be able to watch where the birds went.

You can follow Boelman’s work on a blog at the NASA Earth Observatory. Her first post went up April 12, and was addressed to elementary schoolchildren interested in following her work.

An excerpt:

A space robin mascot for the project. Drawing by Nicole Krikun
A space robin mascot for the project. Drawing by Nicole Krikun

Have you ever left on a trip during a school break only to get stuck on the highway with what seems like millions of other people? Well imagine hitting the road with three billion people! That’s about half of the people on Earth!

That’s also how many birds travel, or migrate, each spring from all over North American to the arctic and boreal regions in Canada and Alaska. Some populations of American Robins are among these three billion birds.

Why do the American Robins travel north in the spring? The tundra and boreal (or northern) forests near the poles are cooler and provide great conditions for robins to mate and raise families. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet of plant life and insects! There are countless mosquitoes that fill the air in big, gray, buzzing, bug clouds. Robins feast on them! They also like spiders, beetles, seeds and berries, which are plentiful. Yum!

For more on the project and Boelman’s work, check out these links:

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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