Australia's Black Swans are among our most graceful birds. With a wingspan around two metres and standing around a metre tall, they're also one of our largest. But even casual observers of the swans around Melbourne couldn't help but notice something different about them - many of the local Black Swans sport plastic collars.
It's all part of a research project by zoologist Raoul Mulder, of the University of Melbourne. In order to study the movements and breeding of Melbourne's Black Swans, he began fitting collars to Albert Park swans in 2006 and continues to this day, with around 300 wearing collars so far.
Females are fitted with white collars and a black number-and-letter combination while males wear the reverse - black collars with white codes.
But if you want to follow where these birds fly - and who they mate with - why not track them or microchip them? The problem with these methods is you have to re-catch the birds in order to examine the data.
That's where YOU come in. A recent trend in nature studies is to enlist the help of 'citizen scientists' - people who are interested in the research project and voluntarily contribute data to the experts.
Thus the Melbourne swan research. It's one of the longest-running bird studies in the world, and it's absolutely dependent on input from the public.
For instance, if you're at a beach or lake and you see a collared swan, read the number/letter combination and write it down. Then go to the MySwan website and you'll be able to see where your swan was last time it was recorded.
It may have been at a park right next door, but it might have flown clear across Port Phillip Bay. Recording a swan at MySwan is a fascinating insight into the lives of these birds - almost as interesting as watching them fly, feed, mate and raise their young.
Since commencing, Mulder and his team have already uncovered new insights. For example, perhaps you believed the folk wisdom of swans 'mating for life'? It turns out they mate for life, but they also have affairs with other swans. By testing the DNA of cygnets and their parents, it was revealed some young were not the offspring of both their parents at all.
But is the collar cruel? Does it pinch or hurt the swan? Many people see swans when their neck feathers are puffed up, the collar appearing to pinch.
Not so. Swans' necks are slender and only a couple of centimetres thick, with the 'bulk' consisting of feathers. If you watch a swan upend to feed, often its collar will slide towards its head then slip back down the neck when it rights itself.
Like all animal research, use of the collars follows strict welfare guidelines. Long-term monitoring is demonstrably important for the swans' continued management in such matters as how they're affected at Albert Park Lake by the Formula One Grand Prix.
Plenty of information awaits the website reader, with academic papers, popular media links and beautiful photos. But you might just want to get outside right away and start monitoring swans, especially the ones with the collars!
Thanks so much for sharing this information. I saw one along the Yarra on my bike ride this morning and wondered if those huge collars were part of a research study or if someone was being cruel! Now I know!