Every time I find a bird feather I can’t resist picking it up and putting it in the band of my bush hat. But next time I tramp one of my favourite habitats – that of the wetland – I’m going to have a different purpose for the iridescent bottle-green flight feathers of the chestnut teal or the stunning blue ones of the purple swamp-hen I find there.
A new citizen science program – the Feather Map of Australia – is asking people of all ages to collect and post in feathers they find for analysis. Using equipment similar to an x-ray machine, the scanned feathers will help identify the bird species and reveal information about its diet, where it’s been and how healthy its habitat is. Ultimately, it will create a map of waterbird populations around Australia.
When I first read of the program in the national press I thought it merely involved mainland bird-lovers but I’m happy to report that it has been extended to Tasmania and feathers can be collected here for analysis.
The aim of the project is to improve the conservation of both wetlands and waterbird populations which are under threat at the moment.
Traditionally wetlands – which, of course incorporate swamp, saltmarsh and mudflat – have been viewed as land of little importance. It’s estimated that since European settlement of Australia half its wetlands have been drained and turned into agricultural, industrial or housing land. With the loss of the wetlands have gone the birds which find a home in them.
The feathers of ducks, waders, herons and swamp-hens might hold the key to turning this situation around.
“Feathers are made of keratin, the same as your hair and nails,” explains the project’s lead researcher Kate Brandis of the scanning process. “And as they grow they incorporate records of the foods that have been eaten. Because the food source at each wetland is different; each wetland therefore has a unique signature.”
Dr Brandis is heading a joint team from the University of New South Wales and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.
She has been researching colonial waterbirds – those which flock in great numbers to breed in wetlands when conditions are good – for the past 15 years. The scientist hopes the Feather Map will not only solve the ongoing mystery of where these birds come from and go to but also determine which wetlands are crucially important for particular species.
Armed with this knowledge it will be possible to improve management of important wetlands by providing adequate allocations of water, she says.
There are strict laws about collecting wild bird feathers – stemming from the days when egrets were hunted to near extinction to provide adornments for ladies’ hats – but the project has negotiated special licences to make it legal to collect feathers from the ground so they can be sent to the Feather Map. The researchers are also asking people to include a tag on each feather with the date, species (if known) and GPS location where it was found.
Feathers collected in Tasmania should be sent to: Feather Map of Australia Project,
c/o Vishnu Prahalad, Private Bag 78. University of Tasmania, Hobart, 7001.