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Headlines Published on 25 September 2006

Title Researchers track birds with GPS to understand spread of avian flu

A team of international scientists led by Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are tracking wild birds in an attempt to better understand the spread of avian flu.

Migration patterns of the whooper swan could shed light on the spread of avian flu. © D. Burke
Migration patterns of the whooper swan could shed light on the spread of avian flu.
© D. Burke
We are familiar with the images of large poultry farms being cordoned off where large numbers of domesticated chickens are culled to stem the spread of the devastating avian flu. However, little is known of the extent to which wild migratory birds are involved in spreading the virus over great distances. The FAO-led team of scientists is hoping to change that by fixing tiny GPS units to swans in Mongolia to monitor their winter migration patterns.

The FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) held The International Scientific Conference on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds in May 2006 in Rome, and recommended improving our understanding of wild bird behaviour, precise migratory strategies, locations of aggregation and convergence, and interactions between wildlife and domestic species.

“We are working to understand the role wild birds may play in the spread of H5N1,” said Dr Scott Newman, International Wildlife Coordinator for Avian Influenza for FAO, and based in Rome, Italy. “Although poultry and bird trade are probably the primary routes of movement, migratory birds are likely involved in some areas.”

Avian flu is a highly pathogenic virus that can be transmitted to humans when in close contact with infected birds. Scientists are worried of an epidemic if the virus mutates allowing it to be passed from human to human.

In late 2005 and early 2006, large numbers of the whooper swan died in eastern Mongolia and western China, drawing the attention of experts. Many of the dead birds were found to be infected with the virus in areas where few domesticated birds existed. Scientists suspected that avian flu was spreading through the area and perhaps beyond, and decided to look deeper into the swan's migratory behaviour.

“The whooper swan project in Mongolia demonstrates the importance that FAO places on understanding the relationship between agricultural, wildlife, and human health,” Dr Newman said.

Migratory birds can travel thousands of miles in search of warmer destinations during the winter months. However, it has been difficult to know where exactly different groups from different areas spend their winters. That changed recently when a company developed special GPS units small enough to be carried by birds. The small units weigh only around 70 grams and are fitted to the birds in small backpacks. The straps of the backpacks are designed to deteriorate and fall off after a couple of years.

The location of the birds is updated twice a week and uploaded to a website using Google Earth software, which can be viewed by the public at

More information:

  • OIE
  • FAO
  • Swan monitoring site

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