MOTUS is the Newest tool for Understanding Bird Migration

Motus, the latin word for movement, is a relatively new technology tool for migration science.  It’s an international collaboration to understand the movements of birds, animals, and even insects across the hemisphere. Use of this technology has expanded rapidly since 2013, involving a network of towers that receive signals from nanotags placed on the migrating animal.

The tags emit little pulses with a unique identification code, which is picked up when the bird moves within 15 km of one of these receivers.  Check out this image from

Our antenna is on the roof of the Landings Building.

It’s a multidirectional Yagi antenna, connected inside the landings to a “sensorgnome,” which is the brains of the operation.  We’re lucky to have a building with a great location with power and internet.  Each day, the receiver uploads the data to the network.

Other migration research tools include banding and geotagging, (both are explored in more detail below) which we have done with our painted buntings, but those require the researcher to capture the bird again to retrieve the band or geotag.  Using Nexrad radar to understand the numbers of birds and insects actively migrating is another tool that gives us information about collective movements. (One of the pioneers of this research is South Carolina’s Dr. Sid Gauthreaux, below with former Dewees interns Jessica Tipton and Nick Wallover at the first meeting of the SC MOTUS network.) Check out this article on Bird Migration from Audubon.

The beauty of Motus is that it allows us to tell the story of an individual bird. And it gives us the opportunity to tell that story without having to recapture the bird.  

Here’s a quick look at the other tools that do require recapture for data.

Bird Banding

If you ever want to appreciate birds in a new way, find a way to help with a bird banding experience. When you hold a bird in your hand, you’ll realize that this is pretty much just a heartbeat with feathers: weighing no more than a couple of nickels and capable of flying non-stop to the tropics!!!

Our friends from Audubon South Carolina came out to band with us recently and we gave some new jewelry to more than twenty buntings.  We even recaptured several birds~ one was banded here over five years ago!

You’ll notice there’s not video coverage of catching the birds.  We don’t publish the whole process because even though these birds are protected by the international migratory bird act, there is an illegal capture trade to sell them into captivity as pets, and we don’t want to provide any unnecessary strategies to anyone with nefarious purposes.


Since 2017, we’ve been part of experiments using light level geolocators. For more on how this works, check out the Smithsonian’s page on this cool technology.

Another way to learn about where these birds go is by using geolocators.  This is a kidney-bean sized backpack fitted to the bird which uses sunlight to determine latitude and longitude by day length and solar noon: we can determine location based on the light level readings. The geolocator has a clock, a battery, and a light recording device.  It stores information, but you have to recover the device to be able to download the data and learn from it.

Here on Dewees, the program looks like this:

One of the exciting things about using geolocators is that it might convince a neighborhood far away to install their own Motus tower to provide real-time data on migrating birds.