The cell phone, that often-annoying but indispensable tool of modern life, may help crack the secrets of migrating songbirds.

Scientists at Oregon State University are developing tiny cell phones that, when attached to the birds, would allow researchers to follow them as they cover long distances each fall and spring.

The birds won’t be calling home with the stripped-down phones, which will act as transmitters rather than pass along chirps. Each bird would have its own electronic signal encoded in the phone it carries. As it flies, a timer would activate the signal, which could be picked up by cell-phone towers.

“This device would allow us to determine the routes and the habitats of these birds,” said W. Douglas Robinson, an OSU assistant professor and avian ecologist. “Tracking them has been very difficult primarily because the birds are so small. This would tell you where the bird is going and where it’s been.”

Songbirds make up about half of the world’s bird species, and millions of them migrate between North America and South America each spring and fall. With many songbird species in decline, Robinson and other ecologists want to know more about their travels.

Robinson came up with the cell-phone idea about three years ago but wondered whether it was feasible. Some of the challenges: making a device light enough for small birds, developing a timer that would turn the transmitter on at specific times, and finding a way to attach it to the bird.

A cross-campus call to OSU’s engineering department turned up Huaping Liu, an electrical engineer and assistant professor who had specialized in cell-phone research at Lucent Technologies in New Jersey.

“Huaping came into my office, and I asked him whether such a device would be possible,” Robinson said. “He made a couple of quick sketches on his notepad and said, “Yes, it’s possible. It’s going to be tough, but it’s possible.”‘

With a three-year $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Liu and Robinson hope to test a prototype in Oregon’s Willamette Valley by early 2007. They want to find out how close the birds must get to the cell towers before a connection is made.

The first long-distance test is likely to be with purple martins, which winter in Brazil and nest around towns in the eastern United States where there are lots of cell towers, Robinson said.

The cell phone could not exceed 5 percent of a bird’s weight. Liu and his colleagues are aiming to keep it to about 2 grams, or .07 ounce – “about the weight of a penny.”

Tracking migrating birds with leg bands has not been successful because the chances of recapturing the small creatures are “slim and none,” Robinson said. Radio transmitters are too heavy, and radar identifies only large groups of migrating birds.

“The advance here is that we would be able to track an individual bird and see where it goes,” Robinson said. For example, a researcher could attach the small phone to a migrating bird as it winters in Panama, then have a timer periodically activate the signal when scientists think the bird has migrated back to North America. “The bird would basically be saying, “I’m here.”‘

Liu estimates that battery capacities would allow them to connect to towers about 20 times during a three-week window. The researchers would work with cell companies, which would identify the specific signals and tower locations.

Robinson said he has a verbal agreement with T-Mobile to participate in the work. He hopes other cellular companies also will help.

Richard L. Hill is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at richardhill(at)news.oregonian.com.


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