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The secret lives of black swans

Volume 7 Number 6 June 5 - July 10 2011

Tagged Swan, G40, with his partner on the move around Victoria. G40 is an old boy, over 11 years old and moves from Ballarat to Melbourne regularly. Such information is known because of the tagging system. Photo: Ed Dunens
Tagged Swan, G40, with his partner on the move around Victoria. G40 is an old boy, over 11 years old and moves from Ballarat to Melbourne regularly. Such information is known because of the tagging system. Photo: Ed Dunens

Black swans have long intrigued us with their seemingly romantic relationships and quirky behaviours, and zoologists from the University of Melbourne are continuing to reveal surprising aspects of their lives thanks to a new research strategy. Sally Sherwen reports.

The study of a wild population of around 250 Black swans at Albert Park Lake over the past six years has allowed a team of researchers, led by Associate Professor Raoul Mulder from the Department of Zoology, to unearth fascinating aspects of swan behaviour.

Such discoveries include the debunking of the notion that black swans are monogamous, as the team revealed that although swans tend to form longterm pair bonds, infidelity is rife, with around one in six cygnets being the product of an illicit encounter.

The team also found that swans of both sexes endowed with elaborate ruffles of curled wing feathers were more likely to find a mate.

But one aspect of black swan behaviour which remains poorly understood is their movement patterns around Victoria. As Dr Mulder explains, black swans are nomadic and travel vast distances, but we don’t know why and where they move.

“Keeping track of the movement of 250 wild animals is a challenging task for a small research team,” Dr Mulder says.

So the swan research group came up with a solution - enlisting the help of members of the public, adding millions of extra eyes available to look out for the swans right across Victoria.

The team designed an interactive website - mySwan.org.au - that aims to encourage interest in research on wildlife by allowing members of the public to report sightings of tagged black swans and in return receive information on the history of ‘their’ swan.

Dr Mulder explains that individual birds can be identified easily from a distance without the need for specialised equipment such as binoculars, because over 200 swans have been fitted with a special wildlife tag - a uniquely-numbered neck collar.

The tagging of individuals also allows the researchers to track individual swans’ histories, movements and fate.

“By submitting a sighting of a tagged bird, members of the public are contributing valuable information that tells us about individual movement patterns and survival rates, and will ultimately contribute to species protection efforts,” Dr Mulder says.

“Collecting such large-scale data is a challenge that can only be met with the help of the public.”

The extent of public interest in black swans was highlighted recently by an outpouring of concern for a male swan widowed in a stoning incident at Monee Ponds in April.

“Many people clearly have a passionate interest in their local wildlife”, Dr Mulder says.

 “Reporting swan sightings on the MySwan website is a great way for people to make a valuable contribution”.

“One of the unique aspects of the MySwan website is that it promotes two-way sharing of information between researchers and the public. Anyone reporting a sighting receives an instant profile of their swan, including details about its age, its partner and its favourite local haunts.

“By sharing our discoveries, hopefully both the community and our research team will benefit by learning more about the animals.”

You can access the MySwan website and record your sightings at
http://www.myswan.org.au/