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University of Oklahoma using weather radar to study bats, birds

Posted at 8:22 PM, Sep 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-17 14:26:14-04

A new OU research project will study the behaviors of birds and bats across the U.S. and in Oklahoma using weather radars.

The project is funded in part by almost $140,000 from the National Science Foundation. Scientists from Colorado State University and the University of Massachusetts will also take part in the research project, which totals approximately $1 million in funds from the NSF.

Jeff Kelly, Ph.D., a professor of Biology at OU, talked to 2 Works for You about the project. The research will focus on how populations are responding in complicated ways to environmental change.

"This is not just biology. This is research that used a lot of what we've learned from meteorology to understand biology. We're sort of crossing those two areas. To be funded and to be known for research on those kinds of topics is a big deal for us," Kelly said.

There's a specific type of bird and bat Kelly and his team will significantly focus on. "Some examples of these are Purple Martin, which is a species of bird that many people raise in their backyard in martin houses. Also, Mexican Free-Tailed Bats. In Oklahoma, we have a lot of free-tailed bats out west in the Selman Bat Caves," he explained.

To study all this, they'll use the power of the network of National Weather Service radars across the country.

"The nice thing about the radar data and what lets us sort of work with the radar data is that there's an archive of all of the data that has been collected over the past 20 years. We can go back and look for data on birds and bats in the radar going back to the 1990s," Kelly said.

Karen Hatfield is a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Tulsa. She explained how the network of weather radars could detect non-weather objects in the air.

"Well, the radars that we use to detect things like hail, snow, rain actually detect bugs, birds, and bats in the very same way. The radar sees things by sending out pulses of energy and measuring how much of that energy gets returned to the radar once it bounces off things," Hatfield said.

She said there's a particular signature to look for on the radar when birds and bats are present.

This is what the researchers will be looking for in the archived data. "You'll start to see this growing circle of reflectivity right around the radar itself. A lot of the times that will begin to shrink during the overnight period, and that's related to the when the birds actually stop their flight and come home to roost at the least for the night."

Kelly said the research will last at least three years and hopes to gain a lot of knowledge from it. "So what we like to know about those birds and bats is are their numbers staying the same, increasing, or declining? If the timing of when they're showing up in Oklahoma and they're leaving the same or different?"

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