Tracking a Migratory Scientist: From Banding Birds to Global Bird Conservation

Amy Scarpignato’s extensive career as a field technician became her biggest asset in the race to protect migratory birds.

When we asked how many species she has handled throughout her career, Amy Scarpignato starting listing off entire guilds until she eventually lost count.

“I started with songbird banding, then worked with raptors, then waterfowl,” Scarpignato explained. “Right out of undergrad, everything sounded so cool and I wanted to travel. I wanted to learn and work with as many species as I could.” And travel she did.

Scarpignato, currently a research ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, worked temporary field jobs for seven years after she graduated college. She looks back fondly on her time living the “tech life,” a formative stage in many biologists’ careers when they work a series of three- to six-month long positions as technicians. In many ways, this vagrant lifestyle embodies so much of what attracts many of us to conservation biology. The appeal of traveling around the world to study different ecosystems is what draws many into the field in the first place. These positions are also vital to conservation, with technicians often doing the bulk of the legwork to collect scientific data needed for conservation plans or to put conservation efforts into action.

However, Scarpignato notes, spending extensive time working those field jobs seems to be becoming less common.

“More and more, you’re seeing people go into a master's degree or doctorate right out of undergrad,” she says. “If you know what you want to do and are sure you want to go into academia, that might be a good choice, but for me, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do long term.”

That’s not to say Scarpignato wandered aimlessly. She always had a keen interest in the factors that influence species distribution. She just did not have a specific job in mind. But through her field work banding different species, she became fascinated with understanding bird movement. Eventually, she went back to school to work on her master’s degree at Humboldt State University, tracking Common Ravens and using GIS to study their home ranges as they related to Marbled Murrelet nest predation. This marked Scarpignato’s first time deploying trackers on birds as well as analyzing the resulting data. The learning curve was steep.

“I would practice by putting the backpack-mounted radio transmitters on stuffed animals and specimens from the university's taxidermy collection,” Scarpignato laughed. With help from professors on campus and visiting raptor biologists, she mastered the field techniques and sharpened her GIS skills. What she didn’t realize at the time was that she was learning the skills that later would put her at the center of the bird migration research world.

As she started to wrap up her graduate work, Scarpignato saw a position open to work at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center that called for someone who was familiar with GIS and had experience handling different bird species. Given all her experiences handling different birds and the GIS skills that she picked up during graduate school, Amy was the perfect candidate and got the position. This new position threw her into the world of bird migration. One of her first assignments was to analyze data from the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab re-encounter database to look at migratory connectivity, which looks at connections between specific bird wintering sites to those same birds' specific breeding locations. Making these precise connections contributes to our understanding of where and when bird populations are located throughout their full annual cycle, an important piece of the puzzle revealing why we have lost 3 billion birds since 1970.

“They basically told me, 'Here’s 100 years' worth of banding data. No one has ever looked at it comprehensivelysee what you can find,'” said Scarpignato.

Moving migration research forward

Fast forward to today, nearly 10 years later, and that first assignment has grown into a massive project. Scarpignato and her team at the Migratory Connectivity Project (MCP) are working on an Atlas of Migratory Connectivity, which seeks to compile all the data available on migratory connectivity for the birds of North America. Scarpignato’s role sits at the center of that project by helping to deploy transmitters, keeping up-to-date on what tracking studies have come out, and reaching out to data-holders to see if they would contribute their data for the Atlas. The Common Nighthawk “migratory profile” that she and her team recently published typifies the work that the MCP looks to do in pushing the field of migration ecology forward.

By shining a spotlight on connectivity, Scarpignato and her colleagues are building the awareness of the role that it plays in the conservation of migratory birds. The importance of migratory connectivity to successful conservation is one of the motivating factors behind Audubon’s own Migratory Bird Initiative, which is working with partners, including Scarpignato and the MCP as well as hundreds of scientists tracking birds, to bring together the latest tracking data on species’ migratory pathways. These pathways reveal the network of connected places that birds need to thrive and inform where Audubon, its partners, and bird lovers should invest in conservation policy across the Western Hemisphere.

“Audubon is fortunate for the work of Scarpignato and the Migratory Connectivity Project, which has paved the way for Audubon to integrate migratory connectivity into our on-the-ground conservation work and engagement efforts,” explains Jill Deppe, PhD, senior director of the Migratory Bird Initiative at Audubon.

Both of these projects come at a key moment in migration research, in which the field is recognizing the need for assessing the full annual cycle across more species, while tracking technology becomes increasingly lightweight, allowing scientists to gather data on those species. Part of what makes Scarpignato an invaluable asset to the team is her past experience working with various taxonomic groups. Through the MCP’s tracking program, Scarpignato continues to get out in the field to deploy trackers, getting a first-hand look at the evolving technology.  

“Now, I get to travel to different locations and try out new tracking tools,” says Scarpignato. “It’s taken me to Alaska, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, and many other places.”

Basically living a biologist's dream, she travels the world to track birds but also has a stable position that does not change every couple months. Scarpignato smiled, putting it simply, “I realize how lucky I am to have my position.”

Scarpignato’s success in her career and love for what she does is a reminder that there is not one path to the job you want. More pointedly, sometimes it takes a bit of wandering to figure out what that dream job even looks like.

“It’s funny how these things work out,” joked Scarpignato, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but all those field positions I worked early in my career really led me to what I am doing now.”

If you would like to contact Scarpignato or are a researcher and would like to contribute data to the Migratory Connectivity Project’s Atlas of Migratory Connectivity, please email

If you would like more information about Audubon's Migratory Bird Initiative, please email If you are a researcher who would like to contribute data to the Migratory Bird Initiative, please fill out this Data Sharing Agreement