Tracking the Twitter bird

Kevin Fraser, University of Manitoba

The Twitter logo is ubiquitous and familiar to millions of users, but the bird it is based on is relatively little known. Let me introduce you to the Mountain Bluebird, a species that Henry David Thoreau once noted, “carries the sky on his back”. This stunning bird breeds in the grasslands of Canada during our summer before migrating southward to spend our winter in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.


Above left, Mountain Bluebird perched on a fencepost near his nest in central Alberta, Canada (photo Myrna Pearman) and right, this silhouette needs no introduction, but is based on Mountain Bluebird.

But while the Twitter bird population continues to grow and proliferate with every Tweet, the Mountain Bluebird is steadily declining for mysterious reasons across much of its range. Birds that inhabit grasslands are suffering some of the steepest population declines of any group of bird (State of Canada’s Birds 2012). One major barrier for understanding and mitigating these declines is that we do not know exactly where birds go after they stop tweeting at their breeding sites.

Enter new technology that allows us to track the migration of small birds. Some Mountain Bluebirds in Alberta are now carrying both the colour of the sky on their backs as well as tiny, electronic devices that will track their migration all the way to their wintering sites and back. This summer with collaborators Biologist Myrna Pearman from the Ellis Bird Farm, Citizen Scientist Brian Biggs, and others, I began an inaugural tracking project to figure out just where Mountain Bluebird spend our Canadian winter, and how they get there. What we learn about migratory connectivity and important habitat used by bluebirds year round may give us something to Tweet about when the birds return next spring.

Mike Symington of Calgary’s CBC joined us for field work in Alberta and produced a video – view it here.


A Mountain Bluebird outfitted with a light-level geolocator that will track his migration to the southern U.S. or Mexico, and back (photo Kevin Fraser).