Citizen scientists, the black swan needs you

Would you like to take “ownership” of a black swan? Catherine Payne

You may have heard that a male black swan was widowed by rock-throwing children in Melbourne recently.

The event caused ripples of public concern, but also revealed how little we know about these iconic, nomadic birds.

A website we are launching this week aims to improve knowledge of black swans, right across Australia, by recruiting members of the public as “citizen scientists”.

Citizen scientists

Citizen scientists are enthusiasts, generally without formal scientific training, who volunteer to collect data for researchers.

Such activity has boomed over the last ten years, and hundreds of projects now involve public participants, recording everything from water quality to butterfly migration.

Many projects use the internet as a tool for connecting volunteers with scientists, but many of these websites have a fatal shortcoming: they fail to promote two-way exchange.

The citizen scientist dutifully submits data online and receives an electronically generated “thank you” message. They have scant opportunity to see how their discoveries are impacting on science.

We hope our website – myswan.org.au – will provide a more interactive and rewarding experience.

Black swans

Our study subjects are black swans living at Albert Park Lake, in the urban heart of Melbourne.

Over the past six years, we have been studying the birds’ behaviour, breeding biology and movements.

Each swan is fitted with a special wildlife tag – a uniquely-numbered neck collar, as seen in the picture above – which allows us to identify individual birds from a distance and track their histories, movements and fate.

Distance

Black swans are nomadic, moving erratically in response to water availability, and this poses an obvious challenge for our study.

In short: how do we go about tracking the birds when we have no way of predicting where they might go?

Fitting every bird with a satellite tag would be prohibitively expensive – around half a million dollars.

Luckily, there are 20 million pairs of human eyes scanning the Australian environment every day.

We’d like to draw on this remarkable human resource to get more information about the lives of black swans than our small research team could ever collect.

Anyone noticing a tagged swan in their local environment can join the ranks of the citizen scientist by reporting their sighting via the website.

All it requires is some simple details about the “where”, “when” and “who”.

Payback

In return for participating, the observer receives instant feedback on “their” swan, such as when it was first tagged, who it is paired with, and where it has been recently. They can then follow the swan’s movements thereafter.

We hope rewarding the curiosity of citizen scientists in this way will encourage them to become regular contributors, and help them to see how their work is changing the course of science.

Quelling fears

Although we have carefully tested the tag collars to make sure they are safe for swans, some people are concerned that they could harm the birds.

Others simply object to the collars aesthetically.

We’re optimistic the site will help to alleviate welfare concerns by showing that neck-collared swans live long and healthy lives, and that being able to recognise and track individuals offers some important advantages.

Melbourne’s recently bereaved swan is a case in point.

There’s enormous public interest in his future and fate, but he’s not tagged, so it’s hard to keep track of him.

A recent skirmish involving three swans ended with only two birds swimming around the widowed swan’s patch together – an untagged male, and a new female who happens to be tagged – P46.

Has the widowed male found himself a new partner, or was he ousted by another untagged male? One male swan looks much like another, so we may never know.

By contrast, we know a great deal about P46, the new female.

She’s at least seven years old; she has lived mainly at Albert Park, but has occasionally been seen in Altona, in Melbourne’s west.

She was briefly paired with another male in 2008, but that pairing ended in divorce.

It will be fascinating to follow her story.

Expert Database

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 54,400 academics and researchers from 2,115 institutions.

Register now