Radio Telemetry: Tracking the Cranes

Clip: Lara explains radio tracking.
Watch It Now

Tech Tips

Every Whooping Crane in the new Eastern flock wears a leg band with a radio-tracking transmitter attached. Transmitters send out signals so the WCEP team can track the birds. The process of remotely sending signals over a distance in order to record information is called telemetry. In radio telemetry, transmitters send signals that can be picked up by a special receiver used by trackers. The receiver collects and amplifies the signals so trackers can hear them.

Radio-tracking was developed by wildlife biologists and electronic experts. Trackers use a radio receiver and directional antenna to trace the source of a signal coming from a radio transmitter attached to the bird. By dialing a certain setting on the receiver, the researcher hears a beep when the crane is within range. Sometimes the trackers walk on the ground, carrying an antenna to pick up the radio signals. Other times they drive vehicles equipped with a big radio antenna on the roof. They can track from an airplane, too. To hear more, click on tracker Lara Fondow's video clip, or read Lara's words below.

Text of Lara's Video Clip:

"Hi, kids. My name is Lara and I work for the International Crane Foundation and my job on this project is to keep track of the birds once they are free flying. What I use is this radio receiver and this antenna [see photo above]. I turn this on and each bird on their leg has a little radio transmitter. And if I dial in the frequency on my receiver— just like you would dial in the frequency of your favorite radio station)—then I can pick up the signal of my bird. The closer I get to the bird, the louder the signal is. And that's how I can find the birds. If the bird is on the ground and I'm on the ground, I can hear the signal if I'm less than 3 miles away from the bird. If the bird is flying, I can hear for about 15 or 20 miles."

NOTE: When Lara is in a plane and the bird is also in the air, she can hear the signals for a hundred miles or more. If The tracker in the plane and the bird is on the ground, the signal distance is about 7 miles.

radio receiver
tracking van with
directional antenna

Photos Wayne Kryduba
Click to enlarge. Do you
see the antenna on the
birds' legs?

Transmitters and antenna on 2003 snap-on leg bands designed by Dr. Richard Urbanek. The radio antenna is about 9 inches long and weighs 60 grams. It points toward the ground.
Chick from HY 2003 with new leg band/radio transmitter.

Photos OM, WCEP

Try This! Journal or Discussion Questions
  • The entire transmitter unit weighs about 60 grams, and half the weight is the battery. The young cranes weigh around 14-16 pounds.

    1. What percentage of of a crane's weight is the transmitter?
    2. What percentage of your own weight would a transmitter be?

  • How would you like to wear a device that tracks you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Explain.

Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure made possible by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).