Cockie wants a smartphone

23 April 2013

Using social media, people track the tagged cockatoos as they move around Sydney. [Image: F Adams]
Using social media, people track the tagged cockatoos as they move around Sydney. [Image: F Adams]

Macadamia has been hanging out in Rouse Hill while CockaMel took a day trip to Cronulla before coming home to Sydney. Meanwhile Watermelon has caught a lot of attention divebombing in Mosman.

Some people use Facebook and smartphones to keep up with non-feathered friends but for others it is a way to take part in community science and improve our understanding of sulphur-crested cockatoos.

"Over 2100 people are following the project on Facebook and we've had over 3000 reports via the app," said Adrian Davis, a University of Sydney PhD student using social media to research how cockatoos live in and move around Sydney.

Davis, from the University's School of Biological Sciences, is collaborating with the Royal Botanic Gardens and Australian Museum on research that began in October 2011 and is about to expand its reach.

"We tag the cockatoos in the Royal Botanic Gardens to monitor their movements, behaviour and site loyalty around Sydney," Adrian explains.

The community aspect is that people report where and when they spot the individually tagged birds. They identify a bird by its bright yellow wingtag then share 'where' and 'when' they saw the bird via Facebook, a 'Wingtags' iPhone app, or by email.

The birds land on people's balconies, peer through kitchen windows and, in one instance, learnt how a door handle worked.

"The birds are inquisitive and enjoy interacting with people, and children love sending us photos. People are often visited by the same bird, which is now individually identifiable, and get to know each bird's unique personality and behaviour," said Davis.

After 18 months the researchers are learning how widely the birds range. The majority of the birds seem to stay close to the Botanic Gardens, however some have never returned and are now frequently sighted around Manly.

"Some frequent Sutherland. Another flew out to Kellyville, where it has remained. So there is evidence of some movements around Sydney and between flocks," said Davis.

"But we are still at the anecdotal stage. There is another year of the project to go before we run an analysis on all the data."

Meanwhile Davis and his collaborators are appealing to the public to help fund an expansion of the program on two fronts. The NSW Environment Minister launched this second phase of the project at the Royal Botanic Gardens yesterday.

To be able to track the cockatoos when they are out of sight, in dense bushland or sparsely populated countryside, the researchers are planning to fit the cockatoos with GPS satellite transmitters so they can keep track of their movements constantly. They also want to expand the successful Wingtags app to Android phones as it currently only operates on iPhone.

"The aim of the program is to contribute to urban planning which takes both humans and wildlife into account. To conserve the wildlife that exists alongside people in cities we need to know more about how these animals live," Davis said.

"It is also a great way for the community to engage in science. They can contribute, learn and perhaps even do a bit of social networking at the same time."

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