Citizen scientists to create a 'feather map of Australia'


Tuesday, 05 April, 2016


A joint research project between the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and the University of NSW (UNSW) is enlisting citizen scientists to gather bird feathers from wetlands.

By collecting wetland bird feathers, ordinary Australians can help researchers create the first ever ‘Feather Map of Australia’ to show the health of our wetland birds nationally. This is particularly important as Australia’s wetlands are currently under threat from reduced river flows and flooding, drought, climate change and land use changes.

Collecting feathers on the ground or feathers from deceased birds from inland wetlands is an inexpensive and non-invasive method to acquire samples. Each bird feather is like a memory chip of where that bird has been — for example, a feather found in a wetland in NSW, once analysed using nuclear techniques, can reveal the bird has been living in the Northern Territory.

“There are some big questions about waterbirds, which we are seeking to answer,” said project leader Dr Kate Brandis, an environmental researcher and waterbird expert with ANSTO and UNSW.

“Colonies of birds come together in their thousands on flooded inland water systems to breed, then they disappear into much smaller groups and you might not see them for years. We would like to determine where they go and where they come from, to find out which wetlands are really important for certain species.”

Isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen will gives the researchers an idea of the bird’s diet — for example, whether it is a plant-eating or fish-eating bird — which helps narrow down the species. The isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen meanwhile provide information about the water.

The researchers are primarily interested in inland wetlands where you find birds such as colonial straw-necked and glossy ibis, as opposed to coastal estuarine wetlands. As explained by Dr Brandis, “These are crucial habitats for Australia’s waterbirds, providing places for nesting, feeding and roosting, and if there are not flooded wetlands, the waterbirds don’t breed.

“We are also hoping to determine whether the birds return to the wetlands where they hatched to breed — there is some debate as to whether this idea of a ‘natal site fidelity’ exists,” she said.

Information from the Feather Map will improve understanding of the ecology and life cycles of waterbirds and waterbird populations. Dr Brandis said, “The more feathers, the more complete the picture and the better the map we will have.

“Everyone can take part, from school groups to birdwatchers — anyone wanting to help preserve our precious wetland ecosystems,” said Dr Brandis.

Citizen scientists are encouraged to collect feathers and post them to the research team, including the location where the feather was found and identifying the species if it is known. To find out how to get involved, visit http://feathermap.ansto.gov.au/.

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