Automated tracking of wild hummingbird mass and energetics over multiple time scales using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology

Lily Hou, Michael Verdirame, Kenneth C. Welch

Published online: 
8 September 2014

We examined the feasibility of automating the collection of hummingbird mass data facilitated by low-cost, low-power radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. In a field study in southern Ontario, wild hummingbirds were captured, subcutaneously implanted with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, and released over a three-year period. Tagged hummingbirds were detected at specially designed feeder stations outfitted with low-cost, low-power RFID readers coupled with a perch secured to a digital balance. When tagged birds visited the feeder, transponder detection initiated the recording of the perched hummingbird's mass at regular intervals continuing as long as the bird remained. This permitted a nearly continuous record of mass during each visit. Mass data collected from tagged hummingbirds showed consistent trends at multiple temporal scales: the individual feeder visit, single days, and even whole seasons. These results further confirm that RFID technology is safe for use in the smallest birds. The effective detection range is a function of RFID reader power, antenna, and tag size. Yet, we find that careful arrangement of feeders and detectors allows for reliable detection even when detection range is low. When coupled with additional technologies, such as a precision electronic balance, this approach can yield robust serial measures of physiological parameters such as mass, an indicator of energy balance over time.