Birds guide wetland recovery efforts

Keep your eyes peeled and collect feathers: that's the request from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.

It's putting together the first ever ‘feather map’ of Australia in a bid to address the decline in waterbird populations due to impaired wetlands.

Project leader Kate Brandis said feathers would be used to gain an understanding of wetland health, then guide policymakers and water managers on improved water delivery, wetland management and decision-making.

“As feathers grow, they incorporate a record of what the bird's been eating, how long it took for that feather to grow,” Brandis said.

“If the feather has been grown in quite a short period of time then the food the bird was eating was good quality and therefore indicates the wetland health was pretty good.

“Whereas if a feather is grown over an extended period of time then we might infer that the food at that wetland was not so great.”

ANSTO is analysing feathers sent in from around the country using nuclear techniques, such as mass spectrometry and high resolution X-ray fluorescence.

Brandis said it was important to identify non-breeding habitats, and water professionals could help by taking a few simple steps.

“We have a fairly good handle on the key breeding sites. What we don't know a lot about are the wetlands that are being used when birds aren't breeding,” she said.

“We want to have more understanding of those wetlands so we can also manage those areas that they're using in between breeding events.”

Brandis also highlighted the increasingly critical role water managers had to play in maintaining breeding grounds, with an estimated 50% of Australian wetlands lost since European settlement.

“In many of the regulated systems a big natural flood event doesn't happen anymore because most of the water gets caught up in the dams,” she said.

“So when the opportunities do arise, the water managers really need to be on top of it to make sure that breeding event is successful because they may not have another opportunity for five years.

“Colonial breeding species such as ibis, spoonbills and cormorants have very particular water requirements: the water needs to get to a certain extent and depth before they'll nest.

“And the water needs to hang around throughout their breeding period: if it drops too suddenly they'll desert nests.”