After revolutionizing bird-migration science over the past decade, scientists have used geolocation and a variety of newer technologies to gain an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how migratory songbirds move across the globe.

As a result, a much more nuanced picture has emerged of how conditions on wintering grounds and along migration corridors affect birds’ survival.  And very soon, with the deployment of some cutting-edge gadgetry on the International Space Station, ornithologists will finally be able to delve into the most disturbing mystery of all: why half of the migratory songbird species in North America are disappearing at alarming rates.

recovering a geolocator from a purple martin

Recovering a geolocator from a purple martin

It all furthers the increasingly nuanced understanding of songbirds’ full annual cycles from breeding grounds to winter hideouts and back again, and the intricate cause-and-effect relationships between them that are only just now becoming clear. “We’re basically rewriting the textbooks,” says Pete Marra, head of the Smithsonian Institute’s Migratory Bird Centre.

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