North East scientists have developed a technique for predicting the arrival of avian diseases, including bird flu.
The researchers studied feathers from the sedge warbler
The Durham University team say measurements of metal found in feathers could pinpoint exact migration routes.
The method involves measuring strontium isotope levels, which vary according to geographic position.
It gives more precise locations than radio or satellite tags, which do not usually reveal individual birds' origins, say the researchers.
Dr Laura Font and colleagues at the university's Earth and Sciences department measured isotope levels in the feathers of the sedge warbler.
Dr Font said: "The routes of migrant birds have previously been studied using a variety of techniques, such as marking individuals with unique metal leg-rings, radio or satellite tags, or simply by counting bird numbers at migratory stop-over points.
"But these labour-intensive methods generate relatively little data and often do not reveal the origin of individual birds."
Concerns about the spread of bird flu means there is an urgent need to find better ways of monitoring the movements of migrating birds
Migratory birds regularly renew their feathers, often prior to migration, and these feathers tend to reflect the isotope signature of the region in which they were grown.
Dr Font added: "By determining migration pathways, the arrival of potential vectors of diseases from infected areas can be anticipated.
"Knowledge of migratory routes also helps evaluate the likelihood that individual avian influenza outbreaks could be related to migratory bird movements rather than anthropogenic activities, such as poultry movements, which are believed to be the main vector of avian influenza in most outbreaks."
The research was published in the Royal Society of Chemistry's Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry.