AMplify: Episode 11, Dr Richard Major (part two)
"Lots of people love cockatoos and lots of people hate them but we don’t know a lot about them. We thought here was a really good target animal for a citizen science project to understand the relationships between birds, people and the environment."
With this in mind, Dr Richard Major and collaborators founded Wingtags. They tagged 100 cockatoos and asked the people of Sydney to share photos of the birds on social media. Since 2011, all of the 100 birds have been reported and some of them hundreds of times.
Kim McKay: Hello, and welcome to the Australian Museum's podcast AMplify. I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO of the Australian Museum where I get to interview some of our fantastic research scientists and staff who were doing extraordinary work here at the museum. Today I am thrilled to welcome again ecologist Dr Richard Major. Welcome Richard.
Richard Major: Good morning.
Kim McKay: It's fantastic to see you because, Richard, if you go into his office he is surrounded by birds and exciting projects. Richard spent over 25 years at the Australian Museum I think.
Richard Major: That's right.
Kim McKay: Well, that's a lifelong commitment, so you must love birds, Richard.
Richard Major: I do, and I like understanding how birds fit into the environment and I'm really interested at the interactions between people and birds and how human activities are affecting, changing animal populations.
Kim McKay: Absolutely, and it's one of the great things about living in Australia. When we travel overseas, the first thing I often notice is that there are no birds, and here I get to live in a community of birds who are squawking rampantly every morning outside my bedroom window.
Richard Major: Yes, it's a very special city, Sydney, but actually all our Australian cities have this in common, that we've got really in-your-face birds that tend to live in the cities that are doing well with people. So parrots in particular are such a rich, conspicuous, noisy, pretty fauna, and they are doing very well with people.
Kim McKay: Lorikeets.
Richard Major: Yes, so all the parrots, the lorikeets, cockatoos, even crimson rosellas, galahs, we are seeing flocks of corellas through the city at the moment now. There's always something interesting in the big bird line. They are the winners in the city. The small birds aren't the losers, but still, I think we should really revel in our big birds and how lucky we are to have such a fantastic snapshot of biodiversity in our backyards.
Kim McKay: I think so. To me it's part of being Australian, that I get to see cockatoos and I get to see lorikeets who come up to the window and want to be fed all the time, because I don't do that, you'll be pleased to know. But also kookaburras. How lucky are we to have this beautiful bird, and yet the early settlers in Australia commented that, oh dear, Australia is lacking the songbirds, but we have our own songs.
Richard Major: Yes, they lamented the fact that the sweet sounds weren't…the dulcet tones weren't there but there were these squarkers and squawkers, and they are very special, they are very conspicuous and they are just part of our lives.
Kim McKay: They are, but I think squawkers are much more aligned with the Australian character than the songbirds, don't you think?
Richard Major: Yes, although it doesn't mean that people like them. So there's love/hate relationships with birds like the cockatoos, the rainbow lorikeets and a lot of those other big birds, ibis, currawongs, they are all doing well, they all have their issues.
Kim McKay: They sure are. The one I want to start talking to you about today first of course is the cockatoo. I've been having my own little urban battle with a friendly cockatoo who has been pecking away at my window ledge lately and being very aggressive there. Of course I think he's doing it to spite me because I won't feed him.
Richard Major: Often they will do that when you stop feeding them, and they will start on the windowsill. So I don't know how long you've been in your house, whether you had a previous feeder there…
Kim McKay: I think it's a neighbour, I live in an old apartment block and I think one of my neighbours does it, so I'll blame them for that aggressive cockatoo who is visiting me.
Richard Major: Yes, but they know where their food is and they will move around a number of food sources where people feed them, and that's partially what we are looking at with one of our projects at the museum.
Kim McKay: So here at the Australian Museum we've got the Australian Museum Centre for Citizen Science, which enables the public to engage actively in environmental monitoring and biodiversity monitoring, and really getting a first-hand feel for what's happening out there in the local environment and being able to provide the data so people like you can assess it. So one of those great projects is the Cockatoo Wing Tag Project, which the Australian Museum is doing in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens and also the University of Sydney, correct?
Richard Major: Yes, that's right.
Kim McKay: So tell us about the Cockatoo Wing Tag Project?
Richard Major: Well, cockatoos are one of those really conspicuous birds and lots of people love them and lots of people hate them, but we don't know a lot about them. And we thought here was a really good target animal for a citizen science project, to understand the relationships between birds, people and the environment. So with this project we have tagged 100 cockatoos with these numbered tags on their wings…
Kim McKay: These are yellow tags that sit on the outer wings of course and you can see them around the city quite clearly, can't you.
Richard Major: That's right, yes. And so there's 100 of those with tags, and then we are asking people to record where they see these tags. And because it's a big bird you can put quite a big tag on it and people can see them, so that's a start. Other birds I've worked on have such tiny little legs you can't expect people without specialised optics to see them, but these are conspicuous birds with big tags. So we are getting lots of reporting. All our 100 birds have been reported by someone and many of them hundreds of times in fact.
Kim McKay: That's right, and there are many personalities emerging in these birds too, aren't there.
Richard Major: Yes, and one other special thing about it is that we have got this…everyone has a phone now and they are big enough to photograph, so not only do we get people's records of what they see, we can also get these confirmed records, we actually get a photograph of it, and it's quite a fun thing to do as well. All the cockatoos have been named, which works out quite well, so when you use the app to get in you don't know what the name of the animal is, you just get the number. But as soon as you've registered it, it comes back on your app telling you the name of the bird, and that's something people find a lot of fun.
Kim McKay: So you can just Google 'cockatoo wing tag project' and go to the Australian Museum side or the Royal Botanic Gardens side or Sydney Uni, download the app, and then you are off and running with your smart phone basically and you can be a citizen scientist, which is great fun. I've done it myself quite a few times because I'm surrounded by these beautiful birds, both here at work at the Australian Museum, we are just near the Domain and the Royal Botanic Gardens and Hyde Park, so we have lots of flocks nearby, don't we.
Richard Major: Yes, and we have got thousands of records, and in fact thousands of photographs, and we've got another citizen science project now that the DigiVols are doing here…
Kim McKay: We should just say who DigiVols are, DigiVols aren't a species from outer space, DigiVols are our digital volunteers who come into the museum or work remotely from their computers, recording our incredible collections. So we've got something like 18.5 million species and objects in our collection here at the Australian Museum, and many of them have little tags attached to them that were handwritten in the 1800s and early 1900s which need digital transcribing. So DigiVol is just an extraordinary project created by the Australian Museum.
Richard Major: So when they are taking a break from recording what's on the tags, we've got another project where they are looking at our cockatoo photographs, and they are scoring these photographs for what the cockatoos are doing. And one of the questions we are quite interested in is handedness in cockatoos, so left hand and right hand. We do know that cockatoos are handed, but there hasn't been a lot of work done on it.
Kim McKay: Are they really?
Richard Major: Yes. So having thousands of photographs, our DigiVols are now scoring these photographs, which leg they are holding something in, and building up a picture in that regard, as well as other stuff about habitat and feeding.
Kim McKay: So what is that going to tell us, if a cockatoo is left-handed or right-handed?
Richard Major: Well, don't you want to know?
Kim McKay: Yes, absolutely.
Richard Major: Birds and animals, they add a lot of quality to our lives. You can try and find something functional about it but there's a lot of interest, a lot of inspiration we get from nature, and so knowing about it I think is just worthwhile in its own right.
Kim McKay: I think so too, and it's a lot of fun as well for the public to engage with this. I know for kids it's a great thing to get out there with their smart phone and take pictures of cockatoos with these little yellow tags and be part of this great project. But you've got another one now happening called Hollows as Homes. Tell me about Hollows as Homes.
Richard Major: This has, again, grown out of the Cockatoo Wing Tag Project, because we've had such a great response to that one we thought, well, now it would be nice to collect some more data directed towards conservation about a key resource that, the hollows that cockatoos use. So cockatoos and all our Australian parrots, they all nest in tree hollows. And you can imagine that with urbanisation we've lost a lot of trees and we've lost a lot of old trees, and hollows take a long time to grow…
Kim McKay: How are they created in a tree trunk?
Richard Major: Unlike America and we don't have any woodpeckers to actually excavate hollows in trees. So Australian tree hollows are formed from fungus and termite activity, so they are slow to grow. We need to get a break in the tree, a branch comes off, fungus invades and then there's a slow decomposition. So hollows take a while to develop.
Kim McKay: But of course we are so keen in urban environments to have trees that might not fall down, so if someone sees a tree that might have a fungus infestation and a hole in it they go and chop it down, don't they, where in fact they are destroying the habitat for all of these birds.
Richard Major: Yes, so that's what this project is really doing, it is taking a bit of a census of the hollows across urban areas, across Sydney. It's starting with Sydney, we are hoping to this project can go state-wide but we are piloting it in Sydney, and we are asking people to look for hollows in their gardens or in their street trees or a bit of bush or in a paddock, whatever, and register this hollow so we know the locations of them and how far they are from bushland, and tell us the attributes, how big it is, how it faces, because we want to know what sort of hollows animals like, and then to monitor it from time to time and tell us what activity we see at the hollow.
And by having many people taking part in this citizen science project we hope to build up a good picture of what hollow availability is like, how much competition there is for hollows and what we might need to do to look after this hollow resource. So guiding things like planting of new trees, retention of particularly important trees, nest boxes, even cut in hollows; some councils are starting to do this where they actually are making hollows in trees specifically for this. And this research, this citizen science, should provide information to guide these activities.
Kim McKay: What a fun project to get the whole family involved in, to go out there searching around your local community for these hollows and monitoring them. I know there are some 30 councils across the Sydney region already involved in this project, which is led by the Royal Botanic Gardens with the Australian Museum and Sydney University. Where did the funding come from for this?
Richard Major: It's come from the Federal government but via a coalition of councils, Sydney's 'salty councils'…
Kim McKay: The coastal ones.
Richard Major: Yes, the coastal ones…
Kim McKay: It's a great group that actually, it's done a lot to protect the local coastal environment.
Richard Major: Yes, so this was a grant that they funded which has enabled us to build the website and have a project officer to run the volunteers.
Kim McKay: Great, so people can just Google 'Hollows as Homes', look on the Australian Museum website, or indeed the Botanic Gardens or Sydney University and you'll find your way to it there. It's just a great project to get involved in. I think it is something that every family in Sydney should do, is engage in some level of citizen science. You know, I've been a long advocate of that from my days when we started Clean Up Australia, and just counting the amount of rubbish we collected on the day gives you an insight, but it also provides data. And these days scientists need the help of the public, don't they, to collect data.
Richard Major: You get data on a grand scale. We couldn't go out and do a census of tree hollows across Sydney. It's a fantastic way of getting broad scale data, and we can answer different questions.
Kim McKay: And of course the great thing, as we said before, like with the cockatoo project, is now we've got this computer in our hands, our smart phones, and we can do so much with them in terms of translating that data instantly, taking a photograph, getting the GPS location of something, being able to input the data, so it becomes a very easy. It really opens up a whole new world I think for the public.
Richard Major: Well, thank you for mentioning that because as well as getting feedback on your hollow, that's how we are transmitting the data, is from your tablet or your smart phone, that's the interface where you are providing the data on your tree hollows with its GPS reference too.
Kim McKay: It makes it so easy, and it's a really great way I think to engage the public but also to enable you as a top research scientist in this field to be able to analyse that data and make those recommendations so that our urban environments continue to have great biodiversity in them and allow these wonderful bird species to thrive.
Richard Major: Yes, it is very much a changing environment, the urban area, and we've got winners and losers, and whatever we can do to try and keep a good diversity of animals, I think serves us well.
Kim McKay: Fantastic. It's been great speaking with Richard Major today who is a research scientist at the Australian Museum. He's an ecologist who specialises in birds, and I know, Richard, we have a great bird gallery, don't we, at the Australian Museum with really thousands of birds on display. So we urge the public to pop in and take a look.
Richard Major: Good.
Kim McKay: Thank you for joining me. And I'll speak to you again on another edition of AMplifyat the Australian Museum.
This project has since evolved into Hollows as Homes.
"Unlike America we don’t have any woodpeckers, that actually excavate hallows in trees. Australian tree hollows are formed from fungus and termite activity, so they are slow to grow. [Hollows as Homes] is taking a bit of a census of the hollows across Sydney. We're asking people to look for hollows in their gardens, or in their street trees or in their bit of bush or paddock, and register the hollows so we know more about them."
Report your hollow sighting and learn more about Hollows as Homes.
This podcast is a continuation from Episode 7 - listen to Part One