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News of Climate Change

A researcher at the University of Adelaide is warning about the impact of climate change on native birds. Recent studies have shown that large numbers of birds are already dying during heatwaves. And the university is now taking part in an international study to look at the sorts of temperature increases different birds can tolerate and how they change their behaviour in extreme heat.

Natalie Whiting spoke to researcher Dr Shangzhe Xie.

SHANGZHE XIE: There have been reports, most recently in Carnarvan Western Australia a few years ago where large numbers of budgies had died during a heatwave but that, you know, it's hard to confirm that's why they died and we don't really know how much heat they can tolerate.

NATALIE WHITING: Is there a concern with climate changes to increase heat, that is that is the course we could see more birds die?

SHANGZHE XIE: Yes I mean, from our first part of the project we have found that birds can actually tolerate quite a bit of heat, going up to 50 degrees in parrots.

With climate change I think the temperatures in the desert is pushing their limits.

NATALIE WHITING: So it could be that that could see more birds if it gets beyond heats they can tolerate.

SHANGZHE XIE: That's right.

NATALIE WHITING: So what's the next part of your research?

SHANGZHE XIE: There are a few different parts we have yet to do. We've done some behaviour studies that at Adelaide Zoo which show difference in behaviour as well, between parrots, song birds and pigeons and that correlates quite well with how much heat they can actually tolerate.

So the next part we want to extrapolate the behaviour differences into birds in the wild but they're quite difficult to observe the same way as we did the birds at Adelaide Zoo.

So we're using two different ways, we're putting a thermal meter logger on the some of the birds in the desert and that actually records the behaviour for us.

We are also using citizen finds and getting people involved in helping us observe these birds.

NATALIE WHITING: So how will the people be involved in the research?

SHANGZHE XIE: We're telling volunteers who are interested in bird watching and getting them to go out on days of different temperatures and actually recording which birds are out and what they're actually doing on those days.

NATALIE WHITING: And so that would give you an idea of which birds are still managing to be flying and whatnot in certain temperatures, is that the thought?

SHANGZHE XIE: Yes that's right, because what we found at the zoo was the pigeons, they don't seem to be affected, they continue doing their normal feeding and behaviour during really hot days, whereas the parrots tend to hide in the shade and just not do very much.

NATALIE WHITING: And is this part of a broader research base?

SHANGZHE XIE: Yes the research was actually kicked off by a group in America, the University of New Mexico. We were one of the places that they were doing part of their research at, so the part where we were measuring the limits of heat tolerance in birds, that's actually part of the bigger project and then we've extended that to the behaviour studies that we've done.

Plus we're also looking at measuring stress, hormones and proteins in most of the birds here.

NATALIE WHITING: If your research shows that birds are adjusting their behaviour to suit the temperatures, is it thought we'll be able to use some of this information to try and help the birds, what do you see as the possible outcomes of this?

SHANGZHE XIE: There's two aspects to it, the easier logical aspect of it is that we will have a large enough database combined with that information the American group has to be able to predict the tolerance of birds.

So that's one way to identify the species of birds that are more vulnerable to heat increase.

The other aspect is once we know the behaviour changes, for example because we know that parrots tend to hide during the heat, then we know that we need to be able to provide them with habitats that allow them to display this behaviour so that when there is heat there's actually somewhere for them to hide from it.

One of the most expensive parts of conversation is actually preserving the habitats. So this just reinforces the point that it's very important to make sure that there's appropriate vegetation and microsites for these birds.

ELEANOR HALL: That's scientists Dr Shangzhe Xie speaking to Natalie Whiting.

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