How Birds Canada Plays An Important Role In Understanding Wildlife Movements

The organization's ever-growing Motus Wildlife Tracking System provides key data for migratory bird conservation.

Since 1960, Birds Canada has been working to conserve wild birds through sound science, on-the-ground actions, innovative partnerships, public engagement and science-based advocacy. With their Ontario-based headquarters located on the north shore of Lake Erie in Port Rowan, the non-profit organization currently has about 50 employees working across Canada.  

Birds Canada works on a diverse array of conservation endeavors from community science projects like the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey and the Christmas Bird Count to education, outreach and monitoring research at Long Point Bird Observatory. Dr. Silke Nebel, vice president of conservation and science at Birds Canada, explains that the organization “takes action to increase the understanding, appreciation and conservation of Canadian birds. We use data collected by more than 70,000 citizen scientists across Canada to identify significant impacts to bird populations and take direct conservation actions to work towards reversing bird declines.”  

One of the pressing needs in conserving migratory animals is a better understanding of how they move and where they go throughout the year. Today, Birds Canada runs one of the most widely used and fastest growing technologies that is capable of tracking small wildlife across the hemisphere—even species as small as butterflies and dragonflies. The Motus Wildlife Tracking System has opened a whole new world for answering important conservation questions for migratory animals, like understanding the impact of neonicotinoid insecticides on songbird migration, the role of weather on dragonfly migration, and the timing of Gray-cheeked Thrush migration from South America to Canada. 

Motus works by attaching a tiny “backpack” on the animal which transmits a radio signal at set time intervals. Then, when the animal passes close enough to a receiver station, usually within about 5 km, the individual is logged at that location and time. Birds Canada curates all data from across the ever-growing Motus network of more than 1,000 receiving stations across four continents. Stu Mackenzie, director of strategic assets and one of the driving forces behind Motus, says “Motus is an altruistic collaborative research network that enables anyone to play a part in tracking migratory birds, bats, and insects, and contribute to their conservation. Motus is rapidly expanding across the Western Hemisphere revealing new information and enabling conservation of additional species at every turn.”  

As a partner of the Migratory Bird Initiative, Birds Canada has helped integrate Motus tracking data into exciting interactive visualizations that will appear on the Bird Migration Explorer. This partnership will engage the public across the Western Hemisphere in the wonder of bird migration and help promote conservation—from Canada’s boreal forest to the diverse ecosystems of South America. “Motus is an important and exciting part of capturing a comprehensive picture of bird migration, and visualizing these data in the Bird Migration Explorer allows others to explore these data and discover these connections for themselves” says Melanie Smith, Audubon’s program director for the Bird Migration Explorer. 

Audubon is in the process of installing Motus stations at seven Audubon Centers across the country, including Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida, Sharon Audubon Center in Connecticut, and Richardson Bay Audubon Center & Sanctuary in California. These new installations will fill gaps in the Motus network while using the amazing connections that Audubon Centers have with their local communities to help the public witness bird migration in innovative ways.  

Dr. Jeff Wells, Audubon’s vice president of boreal conservation, says, “Birds Canada’s research on the distribution and abundance of birds across Canada, their migratory ecology and the factors that impact their survival continues to be vital to ensuring a healthy future for birds and for our planet. They are a trusted and crucial partner in efforts to support the protection of tens of millions of acres of new Indigenous Protected Areas across Canada.” As we confront the challenge of addressing the loss of 3 billion birds, most of which are migratory, and the potential loss of two-thirds of North America’s bird species due to climate change, international partnerships will be critical to stewarding the future of migratory birds. 

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is now entering an exciting new phase of development, with an ambitious Motus Strategy to 2030. This plan maximizes the greatest strengths of the system, setting a course for Motus to become a global research network delivering critical information to conserve hundreds of smaller flying animals. The model to achieve this involves growing a network of well-resourced regional hubs coordinated through national and international directors, and mobilizing a diverse, coordinated community of champions, including technology partners, educators and an engaged public. If you are interested in the Motus Strategy to 2030 and opportunities to invest and collaborate, please contact Pete Davidson (