Long-Term Programmes


These are long term projects or programmes that focus on individual populations or species.

Conservation biology of the Critically Endangered Cape Parrot in the Amathole and Transkei regions of the Eastern Cape, South Africa

Research team: Steve Boyes

Cape Parrots (Poicephalus robustus) are endemic to South Africa and Critically Endangered by habitat loss, illegal capture, and avian diseases (e.g. Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD)). Based on 12 years of annual counts coordinated throughout their range, Cape Parrots now number between 1000 and 1500 individuals, over 800 of which occur in the Amathole and Transkei regions.

In KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Parrots are recognised as dietary specialists dependent on Podocarpus seed kernels in Afromontane mixed Podocarpus mistbelt forest patches. Similarly, Cape Parrots are also recognised as nest-tree specialists in KwaZulu-Natal, utilising Podocarpus snags (i.e. standing dead trees) almost exclusively for nesting. Cape Parrots are reported to have a bimodal flight activity pattern, whereby they embark on medium- to long-range foraging flights from roosts and nest cavities in high-altitude Afromontane forest patches to feeding sites in low-lying or coastal forests. Historical records and preliminary findings from this study challenge conclusions drawn by studies in KwaZulu-Natal, whereby in the Eastern Cape trophic niche breadth appears to be much wider and nest tree preferences more generalist. Therefore, we propose the ecological and natural history research components of this project.

Over 36 months, our study will gather high-quality empirical data on fruiting phenology and food resource abundance in Afromontane forest patches and nutritional value of food resources in the forest canopy, for correlation with the most in-depth study of the feeding ecology and breeding biology of Cape Parrots ever undertaken. We aim to capture more than 100 Cape Parrots to take blood for disease testing, screening body condition, and DNA-archiving (for illegal trade prosecutions and taxonomy). Captured parrots will be individually-marked and photographed for identification in subsequent sightings, recaptures and nest observations. Up to 40 Cape Parrots will be mounted with radio telemetry backpacks, and subsequently tracked both from the ground and from the air. Low-altitude, high-resolution aerial photographs and 72 forest transects in targeted forest patches will be used to develop rapid, aerial, forest assessment techniques to monitor the impacts of climate change and human disturbance. Nest boxes, playback of vocalisations, and supplementary feeding will be tested as conservation tools.

In November 2008, we began receiving reports and photographs of Cape Parrots with advanced symptoms of PBFD infection, and thus have focused our current research on the dynamics that support this disease.

This research also falls within the Rarity & Conservation of African Birds programme.

Ground Hornbill Research and Conservation Programme

Research team: Rob Little & Kate Meares

The Southern Ground-Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri is a conservation icon of South African savannas. During the 20th Century its range and population size in South Africa decreased by some two thirds, with the birds disappearing from much of their historical range. Such a rapid decrease in the population of a long-lived, slow-reproducing animal is of great conservation concern and, based on IUCN criteria, the official conservation status of Southern Ground-Hornbills in South Africa has been elevated from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered. In many cases, however, the drivers of local extinctions are known, and in some instances these are no longer operative. Because of the ground-hornbills’ complex social structure, self-reintroduction would, at best, be very slow. This means that reintroduction programmes are probably imperative to improve the species’ precarious conservation status.

Given this set of circumstances, the Fitztitute’s Southern Ground-Hornbill Research Programme aims to gain a scientific understanding of the environmental conditions which promote the survival and successful reproduction of these birds. We will use this knowledge to identify areas previously occupied by ground-hornbills that are now suitable for their reintroduction. We will then provide scientific information to guide reintroduction programmes such that their efficiency and efficacy are optimized. The ultimate aim of these studies of habitat use patterns by ground-hornbills with different lifetime reproductive outputs is therefore to optimise sites and protocols for reintroduction programmes.

In 2000, the Institute started monitoring groups of ground-hornbills in the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR), a 180 000 ha conservancy adjacent to Kruger National Park. The original rationale for this study was an exploration of social behaviour in the world’s largest cooperatively breeding bird. However, on the basis of this 8-year data set (from 23 groups) we were able to identify environmental and social correlates of breeding performance. This analysis allowed the project to enter a strongly conservation-orientated phase. An interesting finding was that habitat configuration strongly influenced breeding success, demanding that we investigate how the groups use their very large (up to 100 km2) home ranges. To do this we are using solar-powered satellite transmitters on groups in the APNR. We have also teamed up with the Ground-Hornbill Reintroduction Programme based to the west of the APNR at Mabula Game Reserve to study a habituated, but wild-living group of ground-hornbills with the aim of determining how much information is lost by having satellite fixes from the APNR at hourly, rather than shorter intervals.

This research also falls within the Rarity & Conservation of African Birds and Cooperative Breeding Sociality in Birds programmes.

Oystercatcher Conservation Programme (OCP)

Research team: Dane Paijmans

The African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini breeds only on the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. The species is globally rare, with a world population of approximately 5000, of which 75% are in South Africa. It breeds on the open coast during the height of the summer holiday season and, as a result, incurs substantial losses of eggs and young. The OCP is a national programme, co-ordinated by Phil Hockey, involving researchers, conservation organisations and the general public. Its aims are to produce a population dynamics model for the species (we have nearly 20 years of reproduction data), integrate this with observed population changes and produce a scientifically defensible strategy for the species’ future conservation.

This research also falls within the Rarity & Conservation of African Birds programme.

Pied Babbler Research Programme

Coordinator: Dr Amanda Ridley

Pied Babblers (Turdoides bicolor) are obligate cooperative breeders that live in groups of 3-14 adults which occupy and defend territories year-round. The Pied Babbler Research Project in the Kalahari focuses on the behavioural ecology of habituated groups and on the causes and consequences of helping behaviour, parent-offspring conflict, kin recognition, sexual selection and vocal communication in particular.See Pied Babbler Research Project for more details.

This research also falls within the Cooperative Breeding Sociality in Birds programme.

Sociable Weaver Research Project

Coordinator: Dr Rita Covas

Sociable weavers Philetairus socius are highly social passerines of the semi-arid savannas of the Kalahari region in southern Africa. They cooperate to build large thatched colonies which they occupy throughout the year. They also cooperate to raise their young, with 30-80% of nests being attended by a group consisting of the breeding pair and 1-5 helpers. We have a long-term study on the sociable weavers at Benfontein Game Farm, near Kimberley, where we investigate fascinating aspects of the species’ cooperative behaviour, life-history and population dynamics. Of particular interest are the benefits and consequences of sociality and cooperation in this species, understanding dispersal patterns and population dynamics, and how cooperation is achieved in colony building. More specific projects currently ongoing are investigating maternal investment in relation to helping and dispersal patterns, the role of dominance and signalling in cooperative behaviour and how the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is avoided in nest building and maintenance. See Sociable Weaver Research Project for more details.

This research also falls within the Cooperative Breeding & Sociality in Birds programme.