Plenary Talks


Dr Petra Sumasgutner
Core Facility Konrad Lorenz Research Station for Behaviour and Cognition
University of Vienna, Fischerau 13, 4645 Grünau/Almtal, Austria
FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology
DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence, University of Cape Town, Private Bag X3, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

Raptors in a changing world: Understanding the response of predators to increasing urbanisation

Urban development is increasing across the globe and poses a major threat to biodiversity, which is often relatively low in human-modified landscapes. More people live in urban than in rural areas globally, and the urbanisation trend is faster in Africa and Asia than in any other region of the world. Avian predators are amongst the most vulnerable species to urbanisation, but a few have persisted, thus contributing substantially to functional diversity in urban habitats. To date, the majority of urban raptor research has occurred in North America and Europe, but findings from one region may not necessarily translate to populations of the same or similar species across regions. This scarcity of research is despite the fact that Africa hosts its own unique assemblage of raptor species many of which face substantial conservation challenges. Urban areas might create valuable opportunities for public engagement and urban conservation. In this talk I will focus on the responses of raptors to increasing urbanisation, providing examples from across the globe and highlighting urban raptor research from Africa. In my own research I have used long-term data of individually colour-ringed populations to better understand the key resources which attract raptors to urbanised areas, and explore how the decision to settle in urbanised areas can affect individual health, productivity and survival.


Dr Hope Ovie Usieta
Leventis Foundation Nigeria
2 Leventis Close, Central Business District, Abuja, FCT, Nigeria

Sustainable agriculture in a period of unprecedented biodiversity loss

In the current global drive towards ecosystem sustainability and ensuring the world’s poor are food secure, identifying strategies that can increase local and global food production at minimal cost to the environment and biodiversity is crucial. Interventions or practices that are likely to make farming more sustainable are particularly desired given the adverse effects of agriculture. With examples from cassava fields and bird records, we firstly demonstrate that agricultural landscapes support populations of land bird species in relation to agricultural intensification, and then tender strategies that are likely to sustain birds that use farmed habitats/farmland biodiversity while meeting food needs. There is huge potential to increase crop yield in the dominant traditional farming systems while still retaining natural features that support wildlife. Our work on sustainable cassava farming covets intensifying effort on evidence-based farming, and farmer education on wildlife-friendly practices for sustainability.


Dr Leo Zwarts

The fortunes of migratory birds from Eurasia: being on a tightrope

Many studies have shown that rainfall in the Sahel has a great influence on the population development of bird species that spend the northern winter there, but also that many Sahelian birds, especially those that forage on the ground, have declined significantly independently of rainfall in the Sahel. We evaluate the many factors that may play a role. Rainfall determines the frequency and intensity of dust storms but also the river discharge and therefore the surface of flood plains in the Sahel. In dry years there is less seed on the ground and that is mainly marginal seed. Many seed-eaters die in such conditions. In dry years, trees lose their leaves and birds move to the few trees that do have leaves. This becomes limiting and many birds do not survive. Yet, we cannot explain everything with rainfall-related variables. Within a century the human population increased tenfold and this has consequences. (1) The grazing pressure of cattle has become much higher, so that much less (grass) seed is produced, especially the seeds that birds prefer. Therefore, seed-eaters have declined sharply in recent years. Every year, 2% of the savannah is converted into farmland. This is unfavourable for most, but not all, bird species. Farmers leave many trees on their land, but the tree species are different from those found in the savannah. Especially the trees for birds in the more arid and the more humid areas are affected, with birds wintering in the intermediate zone even benefitting from the expansion of the agricultural area.


Dr Pioneer Taashwa Gamundani
University of Zimbabwe
Department of Biological Sciences and Ecology, P.O. MP 167 Mt Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe

Climate change leadership in ornithology and habitat preservation in a changing environment

Habitat alteration owing to anthropogenic activities is one of the main factors influencing survival of birds in ecosystems. Human induced climate change is a key habitat change driver that is causing irreversible ecosystem alterations and these alterations have been projected to increase substantially in the future. Climate change has serious implications on birds. As severity of climate change escalates, it is important for ornithologists to support development of effective strategies that promote preservation of birds and their habitats. Climate change leadership and ornithological research are two key factors that can contribute to this call. Public opinion on climate change leadership, its definition, who should take it up, how it should be done and the knowledge and skills that it entails, is heating up as impacts of climate change become more and more severe. There are calls for bold climate change leadership and action in nature conservation. Research in ornithology is also critical as it generates empirical data that can be used in landscape management. Baseline counts on bird populations are important for comparison with future surveys and for trend analyses of avian diversity, distributions, and population sizes. Projections of distribution of birds using ecological niche models generate valuable data and statistics that can be used extensively in conservation biology. This plenary session will first look at climate change leadership in ornithology. The session will then look at application of climate change leadership in ornithology research using specific example of the African Skimmer in the Zambezi Valley, Zimbabwe.


Dr Chima Josiah Nwaogu
FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology
DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence, University of Cape Town, Private Bag X3, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

Differing priorities in the timing of annual life history events

There is a growing appreciation of the life history diversity of tropical birds, but the selection pressures shaping this diversity remain little understood. Life history traits in African birds are highly variable, which makes it difficult to generalize from conclusions drawn from studies in temperate or isolated tropical regions. Yet, much of our understanding of life history seasonality in particular, rests on north temperate ornithology, which emphasizes the prioritization of annual reproduction over self-maintenance (immune function, body condition and moult). This imbalance needs redress, and a crucial step is an in-depth local evaluation of the annual cycle of African birds. By integrating natural history and immune function studies over the annual cycle of the ubiquitous Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus) in tropical West Africa, I provide some evidence that the benefit of self-maintenance may influence life history seasonality more strongly than the need to breed in the best annual environmental condition. I will use my findings, and other avian examples, to provide an overview of the relationships between life-history and local environmental seasonality. Broadly, I will consider variation in the timing of life history traits such as breeding, moult, and local movements, but also variation in immune indices along a gradient of seasonal aridity. By combining these findings, I will highlight how African ornithology can aid our understanding of how selection on the timing of life history traits may operate differently in tropical areas in response to the differing annual priorities of tropical species.


Dr Susan J. Cunningham
FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology
DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence, University of Cape Town, Private Bag X3, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

Behaviour and the impacts of climate change on desert birds

Avian responses to climate change are shaped by mechanistic links between climate, performance, and fitness. Extreme temperatures and unpredictable resource availability mean that birds in arid zones live near the edge of physiological tolerance limits, making them ideal models for studying these links. I will present data on twelve-plus years of research on birds in the arid zones of Southern Africa, collected by the Hot Birds Research Project (HBRP) team. The HBRP is an international collaboration based at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. Our work focuses on the behavioural and physiological mechanisms by which birds are vulnerable or resilient to climate change. Using examples from our Kalahari study systems, I will describe some of our key findings on how behaviour mediates the relationship between thermal physiology and the thermal environment: with potential to both buffer and exacerbate climate risk. I will include new data on how habitat structure, resource availability and sociality can modify impacts of hot weather on behaviour and fitness outcomes. Our results highlight that data on animal behaviour can be used to aid conservation decision-making; and suggest that behavioural responses to our warming climate might shape functioning of future ecosystems.

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