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Feathers reveal clues to a bird's birthplace

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Strontium man

Ever heard of strontium? Sounds like a character in a Marvel Comics movie, someone with superhuman powers.

Actually, strontium is a chemical that is found everywhere. It leaks out from rocks and into the soil and water. From there, plants and animals absorb the chemical.

Recent research by scientists at the University of Cincinnati used the chemical to find out more about birds. By taking feathers from kestrels, goshawks and other raptors they could locate the general area where the birds had most likely hatched from their eggs and grew up.

By analyzing the feathers for another chemical, hydrogen, the scientists can zero in even more on the place where birds were born.

Such information can help scientists track birds that migrate. This is important information that can help show why birds may change where the fly, maybe because a forest has been logged or developed in some other way. This helps researchers understand human effects on birds that migrate.

What’s more, the chemicals remain in the birds and other animals even after they die. So bird feathers collected years ago could be analyzed for information, providing a glimpse into historic changes.

Without such knowledge in the past, bird researchers relied on things like banding birds – attaching small numbered metal or plastic bands to their legs or wing – to learn where they went. More recently, small GPS tracking devices, like those now found in cellphones, could be attached to captured birds to track their movement.

Bird banding takes a long time to gather information and GPS trackers are expensive.

“I think this can be a good tool to consider population connectivity and to identify trends about where individuals come from and how they move across space,” said Brooke Crowley, a UC professor of anthropology and geology. “It’s important to document things like key (birthing) grounds or places where animals have to stop during migration.”

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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