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Cyber Duck

A flock passes overhead en route to some unknown destination. We crane our necks and watch as the birds slowly disappear. Wouldn't it be fun, just once, to follow those birds? Well, now it's possible, more or less, thanks to a new international project. It's called Discovery for Recovery, and for the next three years it will allow anyone with Internet access to track individual birds as they migrate, nest, and feed.

The birds are Northern Pintails, a duck species that's seen its numbers plummet in recent decades, from 10 million or so back in the fifties to fewer than 3 million now. And while the Northern Pintail is still nowhere near extinct, scientists want to learn more. Specifically, they want to know why the Pintail population has decreased at a time when prairie wetlands have expanded and most other duck species have thrived.

In order to solve this mystery, scientists first must map the exact migration routes of the Northern Pintails and locate those areas where Pintails feed along the way. The scientists also need to identify distribution patterns of Pintails relative to wetlands. Gathering such information can be difficult, though, especially for a small team of scientists using old-fashioned tagging methods. But Discovery for Recovery is a joint effort, combining the talents of the Western Ecological Research Center, the California Waterfowl Association, and the Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research. And it's decidedly high-tech.

The key to the project is satellite tracking. Each January for the next three years scientists will attach transmitters to fifty Pintail hens -- birds, by the way, captured in the Sacramento Valley and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta areas of Northern California. Mounted on the backs of these birds or surgically implanted inside them, the transmitters will allow scientists to track each bird's movements for up to 275 days.

The public can track them, too. Detailed maps are available online. Select an individual bird and watch its progress week to week, or study the migration patterns of all the hens at a glance.

The project's ultimate aim, of course, is to help Northern Pintails survive. Once the scientists know where these migratory birds feed and nest, they can then examine the habitats for possible clues. In the meantime, we all can follow the progress of birds that otherwise would simply pass right over our heads.