Using Feathers To Describe the Health of Australian Wetlands

When the Australian floodplains fill with water, wetland birds gather there to mate. But when the wetlands dry up, where do the birds go, and what’s it like there?

There are the questions asked by Dr. Kate Brandis, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales’s Center for Ecosystem Science. To answer them, she has turned to a surprising source: feathers.

In Australia, banding birds hasn’t worked well. The birds that would be most useful to track have a high mortality rate, and many bird species live in areas where they are simply too difficult to catch for banding. So, two years ago, Dr. Brandis embarked on a citizen science project to help her understand where wetland birds hang out when they’re not breeding and whether they’re getting what they need there.

Dr. Brandis sent out a public call for people to mail her feathers of wetland birds along with records of where they were found. She has received thousands of feathers from about 480 locations across Australia. 

Back in the lab, Dr. Brandis’s team analyzes each feather for evidence of its former owner’s history. Feathers are made of a protein called keratin—which is present in most animals’ hair and nails, including ours. Keratin from a small section of feather can yield information about what its owner ate while that feather was in use. Chicks tend to grow up in one place, so their feathers provide a good picture of the diet available in a single wetland. The feathers of older birds can be compared against these known locations to show which wetlands a bird visited and how healthy those places were. 

When Dr. Brandis releases her results, they will help bring unhealthy wetlands to the attention of managers. Since 1971, 65 Australian wetlands have been designated as “significant” under an international conservation treaty known as the Ramsar Convention. As Dr. Brandis explains, her feather data “[will put] even more pressure on wetland managers to get it right.” 

Do you have a feather you’d like to send? Would you like to know more about this study? Click here!