Help Build a Feather Map for Australia

An innovative program has been launched to help protect Australia’s increasingly threatened wetland bird populations.

Wetlands are habitats that are critical for Australia’s waterbirds, but they are under threat from reduced river flows and flooding, drought, climate change and land use changes.

Now individuals can play a part in protecting both birds and their habitats - simply by collecting wetland bird feathers to help researchers create the first ever ‘Feather Map of Australia’.

The initiative is a joint research project between the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and the University of NSW (UNSW).

Each feather will be analysed using nuclear techniques to understand the diet and environmental conditions that grew the feather.

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.

Scientists will compare feathers from diverse parts of Australia, to identify differences and create a map to understand more about these ecosystems.

This unique project provides a non-invasive method to acquire samples, and also avoids welfare issues associated with tagging, tacking or capturing individual birds.

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

“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.

“We are primarily interested in inland wetlands where you find birds such as colonial straw-necked and glossy ibis, as opposed to coastal estuarine wetlands.

“Wetlands around Australia are under threat from reduced river flows and flooding, drought, climate change and land use change. 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,” Dr Brandis said.

Wetlands are areas where water covers soil year round, or just some of the time- swamps, marshes, lakes, billabongs, lagoons, saltmarshes, mudflats, mangroves, dams and farm dams, rivers and creeks all classify.

Details at www.ansto.gov.au/feathermap