The sight of a sulphur-crested cockatoo raiding a household wheelie bin might do little more than irritate the average person left to clean up the mess. However, for researchers at the Big City Birds citizen science project, it’s an exciting demonstration of the way birds are adapting to a changing environment.
“We have reports of birds playing and foraging in unusual and innovative ways, which gives us really exciting new behaviours to investigate,” explains research group leader Lucy Aplin, from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.
Some of Australia’s most iconic bird species are being forced to adapt to city living as humans dramatically alter landscapes through the development of agricultural land and urban environments.
Big City Birds is interested in how five species are changing and coping: the sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita), Australian brush-turkey (Alectura lathami), white ibis (Threskiornis moluccus), little corella (Cacatua sanguinea), and long-billed corella (Cacatua tenuirostris).
“The five species highlighted are large, iconic species that have learned to live in and amongst humans in a variety of ways that we find fascinating,” says Aplin.
“By focusing on these species, we hope to understand how and why some of our native species have managed to adapt to human-modified environments.”
The researchers suggest the data will be able to tell them about three different aspects of avian city living: how the birds are using the landscape, how they use resources in the city, and their population structure and social network.
“We’re especially interested to learn whether we have evidence for such innovative behaviours in cockatoos, which are famous for their intelligence,” Aplin explains.
The project, which was only launched last month, is a collaboration between scientists from the Taronga Conservation Society, the University of Sydney and the Max Planck Institute.
Co-creator Matthew Hall, from the University of Sydney, says while the project is “in its early days”, it’s produced some interesting results so far.
“I’ve found reports of brush-turkeys moving up to 10 kilometres between suburbs particularly fascinating,” he says. “As these birds are not strong fliers, they have to walk that distance and deal with hazards such as road traffic.”
As well as reporting a sighting and some bird behaviours, the researchers are also interested in where the birds set up shop for the nesting season.
“Seeing where in the city cockatoos can find tree hollows, ibis build their nests, or where brush-turkeys construct their mounds is great!” Hall says. “It’s like seeing a snapshot of how they’re surviving from generation to generation in a hostile environment.”
While the focus is on behaviour, as researchers are marking birds, they also strongly encourage reports of wing-tagged, banded and paint-marked birds.
“Reports of individually marked birds will allow us to investigate how individuals use the city differently, and are hugely valuable in giving insight into the social and ecological variables that shape each bird’s natural history” Aplin explains.
To get involved, all you need is a phone or a computer and a keen eye. Keep an eye out for any of the species. Note down several things including the presence of a bird, its age and sex, what it’s eating and how it’s behaving. Then, report the findings either on the Big City Birds app, or through the website.
The website has a handy guide for each bird species, including how to tell if they’re an adult, their sex and different kinds of behaviour you should observe, such as preening, aggression to other birds and playing.
While they’re particularly interested in the five species, they also encourage reports of other species as a comparison. There’s also no limit to how often you report; the researchers say as much as possible.
“By focusing on these species, we hope to understand how and why some of our native species have managed to adapt to human-modified environments,” Aplin explains. “By studying these success stories we can build a broad understanding that we can apply to help those species that haven’t been so successful.”
Amelia Nichele is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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