An automated barcode tracking system for behavioural studies in birds

Gustavo Alarcón-Nieto, Jacob M. Graving, James A. Klarevas-Irby, Adriana A. Maldonado-Chaparro, Inge Mueller, Damien R. Farine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Recent advances in technology allow researchers to automate the measurement of animal behaviour. These methods have multiple advantages over direct observations and manual data input as they reduce bias related to human perception and fatigue, and deliver more extensive and complete datasets that enhance statistical power. One major challenge that automation can overcome is the observation of many individuals at once, enabling whole-group or whole-population tracking. We provide a detailed description of an automated system for tracking birds. Our system uses printed, machine-readable codes mounted on backpacks. This simple, yet robust, tagging system can be used simultaneously on multiple individuals to provide data on bird identity, position and directionality. Furthermore, because the backpacks are printed on paper, they are very lightweight. We show that our method is reliable, relatively easy to implement and monitor, and with proper handling, has proved to be safe for the birds over long periods of time. We describe the deployment procedure of this system for a captive population of songbirds. We test different camera options, and discuss their advantages and disadvantages. In particular, we highlight how using single-board computers to control the frequency and duration of image capture makes this system affordable and adaptable to a range of study systems and research questions. The ability to automate the measurement of individual positions has the potential to significantly increase the power of both observational and experimental studies. The system can capture both detailed interactions (using video recordings) and repeated observations (e.g. once per second for the entire day) of individuals over long timescales (months or potentially years). This approach opens the door to tracking life-long relationships among individuals, while also capturing fine-scale differences in behaviour.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1536-1547
Number of pages12
JournalMethods in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecological Modeling


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