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Donations allow DNR to complete wildlife tracking system to monitor migration

  • 12/12/2023 12:00:00 PM
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The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has received two $60,000 donations that will allow it to complete its Motus Wildlife Tracking System Network across the state within the next five years.

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is a network of coordinated automated radio telemetry stations used to track long-distance movements of small animals. It began in 2013 by Birds Canada, near Toronto.

Automated antenna arrays connected to radio receivers are being installed throughout the Western hemisphere and birds, bats and insects are netted and trapped then outfitted with small tags that emit a radio signal every few seconds. When the tagged animal passes near a receiver station, it records the tag and identifies the animal to which it was attached. So multiple detections over time can build a map of migration for a tagged individual. In Iowa, the system will be tracking tagged birds, bats and insects during migration. 

Diane Crookham-Johnson and Musco Sports Lighting, both of Oskaloosa, provided the donations that will be used to match federal grants and to purchase supplies for the Motus System in Iowa. The donations were accepted during the August meeting of the Natural Resource Commission.

Crookham-Johnson’s love of birds began six years ago when she was looking to fill her time after the kids went off to college. Her husband suggested she should go to Lake Red Rock and photograph the eagles. Initially, she was reluctant.

“But I went and within minutes I was hooked,” she said. Now, her morning routine includes a stop at nearby Maskunky Marsh, where she has seen 208 species over the past six years.

Crookham-Johnson also volunteers at a local elementary and during certain times while the kids are standing in line, she would show videos of birds taken on her phone, hoping to peak their interest. She sees the data collection system as a way to bring the outdoors into the classroom – nature, conservation, connectedness between countries.

“Birds are everywhere, they’re easy to see and relatable – I’m hoping to get them interested,” she said. “Whatever we can do to get kids excited about nature, is good for earth and good for mental health.”

Iowa is an important flyway for migrating birds and these generous donations will allow the state to fill in its east-west radio receiver station fence, which will detect more birds and provide more information on migration patterns that can inform conservation decisions, said Anna Buckardt Thomas, avian ecologist with the Iowa DNR.

“We’re trying to increase the number of stations in Iowa and the Midwest to benefit current and future research,” Buckardt Thomas said.

Iowa began installing stations in August 2021 as part of a Fish and Wildlife Service Grant that funded equipment for 40 stations in the Midwest and a dozen in Central and South America. To date, there are 18 stations operating in Iowa; nine by the Iowa DNR and nine by its partners. The data collected is available to view online at

“The donations will allow us to add 20 additional stations that will complete the vision of an east-west fence in the middle of the state, and stations along our border rivers,” Buckardt Thomas said.

Stations cost about $4,000 each, are designed to fit the site and expected to last for 10 years. The requirements to host a site is, its location in relation to other stations, elevation in the surrounding area, and an internet connection.

The stations are automated and have four antennas set to receive two radio frequencies. The larger antennas have a detection range of 15 kilometers, the smaller antennas can cover 10 kilometers. Once installed, the system is fairly low maintenance and always on, ready to detect tags nearby.