Wetlands such as the Murray River are critical habitats for Australia’s waterbirds, but reduced river flows and flooding, drought, climate change and land use changes mean that this area and others like it are under threat.

These school holidays, we are asking people to help turn the tide by collecting wetland bird feathers to help researchers create the first ever ‘Feather Map of Australia’.

Project Leader Dr Kate Brandis, an environmental researcher and waterbird expert with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW), said it’s the fact that the Murray River is a key waterbird site that makes scientists particularly interested in feathers from the area.

Each feather will be analysed using nuclear techniques to understand the diet and environmental conditions of the bird that grew the feather, because each bird feather is like a memory chip of where that bird has been.

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

“Inland wetlands play a critical role in supporting Australia’s waterbird population,” said Dr Brandis.

“They provide an important habitat for waterbird breeding, roosting and feeding, and if there are not flooded wetlands, the waterbirds don’t breed.

 “The more feathers we have from diverse geographic areas, the more complete our Feather Map, and the clearer the picture of Australian waterbird health will be,” Dr Brandis said.

The research team also includes Dr Debashish Mazumder and Dr Suzanne Hollins from ANSTO and Professor Richard Kingsford from UNSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science.

Information from the Feather Map will improve understanding of the ecology and life cycles of waterbirds and waterbird populations, and ensuring their populations are maintained or increased.

“There are some big questions about waterbirds, which we are seeking to answer but we need citizen scientists to help us do that,” explained Dr Brandis.

“Everyone can take part, whether they are families looking for something different to do these school holidays or birdwatchers - anyone wanting to help preserve precious ecosystems around their homes,” said Dr Brandis. 

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

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.