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An experimental evaluation of the effects of geolocator design and attachment method on between-year survival on Whinchats Saxicola rubetra

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Emma Blackburn, Malcolm Burgess, Ben Freeman, Alice Risely, Arin Izang, Samuel Tertese Ivande, Chris Hewson, Will Cresswell

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Data from location logging tags have revolutionised our understanding of migration ecology, but methods of tagging that do not compromise survival need to be identified. We compared resighting rates for 156 geolocator-tagged and 316 colour ringed-only whinchats on their African wintering grounds after migration to and from eastern Europe in two separate years. We experimentally varied both light stalk length (0, 5 and 10 mm) and harness material (elastic or non-elastic nylon braid tied on, leg-loop ‘Rappole’ harnesses) in the second year using a reasonably balanced design (all tags in the first year used an elastic harness and 10 mm light stalk). Tags weighed 0.63 g (0.01 SE), representing 4.1% of average body mass. There was no overall significant reduction in between-year resighting rate (our proxy for survival) comparing tagged and untagged birds in either year. When comparing within tagged birds, however, using a tied harness significantly reduced resighting rate by 53% on average compared to using an elastic harness (in all models), but stalk length effects were not statistically significant in any model considered. There was no strong evidence that the fit (relative tightness) or added tag mass affected survival, although tied tags were fitted more tightly later in the study, and birds fitted with tied tags later may have had lower survival. Overall, on a precautionary principle, deploying tags with non-elastic tied harnesses should be avoided because the necessary fit, so as not to reduce survival, is time-consuming to achieve and does not necessarily improve with experience. Geolocator tags of the recommended percentage of body mass fitted with elastic leg-loop harnesses and with short light stalks can be used without survival effects in small long-distance migrant birds.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)530-539
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number4
Early online date1 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016

    Research areas

  • Paleartic migrant, Migration, Tag effect, Rappole harness

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