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A Bird in the Hand May Help Save a Species

September 28, 2018

Once a common sound on summer nights in the Northeast, the eponymous call of the whip-poor-will is heard by few these days, as the bird’s breeding grounds have shrunk, largely due to habitat loss. WPI biologist Marja Bakermans, whose research in conservation biology has focused on the ecology of migratory songbirds, wants to help reverse that trend. But to attack the root causes of the whip-poor-will’s decline, she must first shed light on the habits of this mysterious nocturnal creature—for example, where it goes on its winter migration.

Bakermans, her husband (Massachusetts state ornithologist Andrew Vitz), and a team of WPI undergraduates are working to track the whip-poor-will’s annual southward journey. Working at the bird’s few well-used breeding sites, they capture adults with mist nets and then outfit them with tracking devices that fit over their wings like tiny backpacks. When the tagged birds return the next spring, the data reveal their migratory routes, stopover spots, and wintering locations. “As we work to conserve species, we need to know where the threats are,” Bakermans says. “And for our New England species, the threats may lie more on the wintering ground. We just don’t know.” By taking the fate of this cryptic night dweller in her hands, Bakermans hopes to once again make its lonesome song a familiar sign of summer.