CMZoo Members Fund Migratory Bird Conservation Towers in Colorado Springs

December 27, 2023

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s members are taking the joys of birdwatching to another level – and the biggest benefactors are the birdies.

In March 2023, as part of the annual CMZoo Member Conservation Vote, members chose to fund the purchase and installation of three cutting-edge technology bird-tracking towers that will support a growing global network of conservationists. To understand birds’ obstacles and declining populations, scientists need to study their migration paths, stopover sites, summer breeding and over-wintering locations.

Birders have tracked bird movements for decades by banding and releasing individual wild birds and hoping to catch them again later to document their ages and locations. While it is and has been a beneficial science, it provides data based on single moments in time, rather than providing a full picture of a bird’s migration and movements.

With the Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus), unassuming towers and tiny bird ‘backpacks’ work together to collect ongoing data via radio telemetry. The lightweight and unobtrusive tracking ‘backpacks’ come in a variety of sizes fit for birds, bats and butterflies – and some are even solar powered. Conservationists just need to catch a bird once to attach a tracker that ‘pings’ the towers when it flies by. The towers are peppered across North, Central and South America and in several parts of Europe, Australia, Africa and Asia.

“Colorado and the Rocky Mountain corridor have some Motus towers, but not as many as other migration flyways,” Rebecca Zwicker, animal care manager at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Zwicker and other CMZoo staff presented the Motus tower project for members’ consideration in 2023. “If you build it, they will come. We need more towers to encourage researchers to put the backpacks on the birds. Without more receiver towers, it’s not worth tagging the birds with these state-of-the-art trackers. We’re really looking forward to seeing our first backpacked bird’s data pop up on our tower – hopefully by this spring during the Great Migration.”

Members funded the purchase and installation of three Motus receiver towers. The first CMZoo member tower – a 10-foot tall mast with two perpendicular antenna facing Colorado Springs from the Zoo – is reminiscent of an old-school TV antenna. It is a permanent structure on the south side of the Lodge at Moose Lake.

“It’s in a really great spot because the towers have an unobstructed view above the trees,” said Zwicker. “We put it here because we wanted members and guests to see it and to ask questions about it. A digital display board in The Loft will collect the data from tagged birds that fly by our tower. That board connects to, where the data is compiled and shared globally on a daily basis.”

Each tower can track a 5- to 8-mile radius of birds carrying the Motus telemetry tags. The second CMZoo member-funded tower will soon be installed at Fountain Creek Nature Center, so the two towers’ tracking radiuses should overlap. The third tower will later be installed in an undecided location, once CMZoo conservationists learn best practices for the first two towers.

“One of the beautiful parts of contributing to this conservation collaboration is that most towers’ data is available to anyone,” said Cassie Spero, animal keeper in The Loft and part of the Motus team at CMZoo. “Conservationists will use this data to understand species and propose important habitat protections. But, if you’re working on a research project for school, or you’re tracking migrations out of personal curiosity, the data will be there for you.”

The Zoo does not have current plans to band or ‘backpack’ any birds and will leave that to the wild bird banding experts. CMZoo’s strength as conservation advocates lies largely in its ability to reach so many people with opportunities to support conservation partners and collaborative efforts, like Motus. By adding more towers to the fledgling Colorado network of receivers, Zoo members are helping lay the groundwork for enormous progress in bird protections.

“Birds enhance our natural world – not just with their beauty and the magic of their presence,” said Zwicker. “They bring a little wonderment to your day, but they also serve important roles in our natural world – across all ecosystems as pollinators, clean-up crews, seed dispersers and food sources. It’s a really feel-good effort and it makes me grateful that our members have allowed us to join this global community committed to the conservation of the beautiful birds of the world.”

Every membership and every visit to the Zoo is conservation in action. In addition to the nearly $5 million raised through admissions for the Zoo’s Quarters for Conservation legacy conservation partners, since 2015, CMZoo’s Member Conservation Vote has provided $675,000 of membership revenue to support field conservation worldwide.

Each year, a total of $100,000 of membership revenue is contributed to conservation in two ways:

  • $25,000 to the Quarters for Conservation program, which in total contributes half a million dollars on average annually to CMZoo’s legacy conservation partners.
  • $75,000 to projects voted for by CMZoo members through this annual vote.

Bird enthusiasts at home can try their hands at birdwatching for Colorado winter birds by playing with these CMZoo Colorado Backyard Bird Bingo cards!