Satellite tagging birds: the facts

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Satellite tagging birds: the facts

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Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management for RSPB Scotland, brings us this latest blog on the facts of satellite tagging birds. 


The satellite and wing tagging of birds is established scientific practice, used in many countries across the world, primarily to study the movements, and survival of birds, and in turn to inform conservation programmes. 

In the UK both satellite tagging and wing tagging are accredited by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) on behalf of the Country Conservation Agencies. This practice is highly regulated by the BTO. In Scotland, there are some of the most experienced practitioners, in relation to both the satellite and wing tagging of raptors, anywhere in the world. Most of the practitioners have more than 20 years of experience in using such techniques and routinely work together in small teams to share best practice and maintain high standards. Practitioners from Scotland have also shared experience and helped scientists in many other countries with best practice training and methods.

Satellite tagging methodology and hardware has developed greatly in recent years, with the tags becoming smaller and more lightweight allowing them to be fitted to birds with smaller body weights. The standard rule of thumb is that any satellite tags need to be less than 3% of the body weight of the bird concerned. 

The tags use military grade GPS technology and are powered either by batteries or solar panels. They are generally fitted as a backpack harness, using lightweight and smooth Teflon ribbon straps, to prevent any later abrasion with the skin of the bird. Once fitted the tags transmit periodic signals to a satellite or to the mobile phone network allowing scientists to track the movements and survival of the birds via computer downloads. 

Wing tagging involves the fitting of small plastic tags with colour and letter coding as unique identifiers to the wings of birds using stainless steel pins. Wing tagging is long established scientific practice and has been used in Scotland for at least 30 years and is now regarded as an important and safe bird monitoring tool.  

Satellite tagging technology in particular has allowed scientists to study the migration of bird species including ospreys, cuckoos and nightingales to their wintering grounds in Africa. Information has been gathered which has shed completely new light on the movements of birds and identified specific geographical wintering areas in Africa and in Europe which are vital in the life cycle of these birds. No other presently available technical method allows such insight.

In Scotland, the satellite tagging and wing tagging of birds of prey has assisted with the official reintroduction programmes for both white-tailed eagles and red kites. This monitoring work has helped conservation practitioners better understand how these birds are becoming re-established in line with international best practice standards for reintroduction programmes. It has also helped us identify continuing threats to their populations.     

In August 2016, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform in Scotland commissioned an independent study to investigate whether there were any patterns to the suspicious disappearance of satellite tagged raptors in Scotland. This followed reports by RSPB Scotland of eight satellite tagged golden eagles “disappearing off the radar” in the previous five years in the Monadhliaths area of Inverness-shire. In late August the review was extended to cover other satellite tagged raptor species, including hen harrier and red kites. It is expected that this review will report in late spring 2017.

Whilst the Scottish Government satellite tagging review is still underway, a considerable amount of misinformation has recently been posted on social media, including by a representative of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association – an organisation purporting to be a Partner Against Wildlife Crime Scotland, in what can only be construed as a rather crude attempt to try to undermine the contents of the imminent review. 

These predicatble attempts on social media to create a “smokescreen” about what is both highly regulated and bona fide scientific activity, try to portray the experienced practitioners involved as “bird botherers” and suggests significant welfare concerns to the birds from satellite tags and wing tags. Images of satellite tagged birds are being lifted from individual social media accounts and poorly informed comments are being made to try and support a narrow obfuscation agenda.

Of course, none of the claims made in these posts are supported by any evidence, and it is also significant that none of these posts make any reference to the many satellite-tagged raptors found to have been illegally poisoned, shot or trapped.

This can be set in the wider context of the concerns that have been voiced for decades about the scale of raptor persecution in Scotland and the impacts of these crimes on our bird of prey populations. RSPB Scotland is now advocating a system of licensing for “driven” grouse shooting given the well documented history of illegal killing of birds of prey in that sector and the failure of self-regulation by the gamebird shooting industry to stamp out criminal practices.

These attempts to mislead might also suggest there is great concern in some quarters about what the outcome of the review might show, and what action the Cabinet Secretary might take as a response.

Whilst we are sure that the Scottish Government review will look at all relevant aspects of satellite tagging work, which we welcome, we fully expect Scottish practices in this technique, to stand up to scrutiny. Any recommendations arising from the review and intended to improve best practice will of course be accepted and incorporated in future methodology.

Attachment: Overview of BTO Ringing Scheme training and licensing procedure.pdf
  • Lets expose the misinformation of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and shine a light on the persecution of these birds and other wildlife by the shooting fraternity. We must keep the pressure up as we have got them worried and on the run!

  • Great Blog Duncan.  Tell it like it is.  Lets get this blog into Nature's Voice.  Better still lets get it onto the pages of the national press to counter the clap trap of YFTB, SGA et al.  Its important to stand up for rigorous science and methodology and FACTS in the face of alternative facts, post-truth and big lies.  The membership needs to get behind you lock stock and barrel.

  • Thanks for this. I feel it is important that the RSPB makes clear to the public the truth of these matters, as there are many who are trying by any means possible to discredit the good work you do, whilst claiming to be against raptor persecution.