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Current research programmes

Pied Babblers and Fork-tailed Drongos

Tim Clutton-Brock established the Kuruman River Reserve to study group living in meerkats, but it has become the focus of several other long-running animal studies: Amanda Ridley started habituating Southern Pied Babblers Turdoides bicolor in 2003 to understand the causes and consequences of cooperative breeding. In 2006 she started to investigate the interactions between Fork-tailed Drongos Dicrurus adsimilis, babblers and other species. Tom Flower joined the Drongo Project in 2008 to study the drongos’ use of false alarm calls to steal food from other animals. Recently, Amanda and Tom have collaborated with Susie Cunningham to explore how increasing temperatures will affect the demography of these species in marginal desert environments.

The causes of conflict and cooperation in group-living societies

The Pied Babbler research project investigates the costs and benefits of cooperation in this group-living species. Long-term life history data, along with short-term observations and experiments, have helped us understand the causes and consequences of cooperative breeding behaviour. Group sizes vary according to weather conditions, with the population decreasing when breeding seasons are hot and dry, and during very cold winters.

The range of questions that can be asked increases as the duration of the study grows, and we can now assess life-time fitness. PhD student Amanda Bourne is using the long-term database to understand the impact of heatwaves and drought on survival and reproductive success. We are also investigating the impact of heat on cognitive ability, because cognition is vital to an individual’s ability to behaviourally respond to changes in their environment. PhD student Camilla Soravia is studying the ontogeny of cognition and the relationship between cognition and sociality.

How interactions between species shape animal behaviour

The Fork-tailed Drongo project explores how interactions with other species can shape the evolution of behaviour. Over 40 pairs of individually colour-banded drongos have been habituated. Current research considers the cognitive mechanisms that enable drongos to produce false alarm calls and adjust the calls they use depending upon feedback from the target species. Since 2014, we also have studied the impact of climate change on bird persistence in hot desert environments through impacts on foraging behaviour and offspring provisioning. PhD student Ben Murphy is studying how drongos adjust their behaviour to reduce the impact of high temperatures on reproductive success, including through offspring shading, foraging tactics and crepuscular/nocturnal activity. Such behaviour change may compensate for the costs of missed opportunities when temperatures are high, enabling drongos to adapt to climate change. However, it remains to be determined whether the behavioural adjustments are sufficient to enable drongos to persist in their current range..

Activities in 2019

  • PhD student Amanda Bourne completed her fieldwork on Pied Babbler behaviour and physiology. Amanda worked incredibly hard for three field seasons and collected a tremendous amount of behavioural, demographic and physiological data.
  • Research assistant Sanjo Rose, together with PhD student Amanda Bourne, research assistant Lesedi Moagi, and Susie Cunningham mapped the home ranges of ten babbler groups and conducted a field survey to understand vegetation and microsite structure in these home ranges. These data are now being used to assess what constitutes a “high quality” babbler territory.
  • PhD student Camilla Soravia started her research on the relationship between heat stress and cognitive performance, testing the hypothesis that increased heat stress leads to cognitive impairment, and hence a limited ability to respond to stimuli in their surrounding environment.
  • Martha Nelson-Flower and Amanda Ridley completed a book chapter for a new edited book on Cooperation and Conflict.
  • PhD student Ben Murphy made good progress during his first field season and is presently completing his second field season.

Highlights

  • Two papers on Pied Babblers were published in 2019. The first, by PhD student Amanda Bourne, validated a non-invasive technique for monitoring metabolism in free-ranging birds and was published in Functional Ecology. The second, by Prof. Andrew McKechnie’s Honours student Emma Jepsen, conducted non-invasive monitoring of stress in wild Pied Babblers by using faecal samples, and was published in General and Comparative Endocrinology.
  • Pied Babbler and Fork-tailed Drongo research was presented at several national and international conferences, including the Australasian Ornithological Conference. Dr Tom Flower was promoted to a full-time tenured Lecturer position at Capilano University, British Columbia, Canada.
  • Tom joined the Executive Board of the Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia.

For more details on the collaborative work between the Pied Babbler and Fork-tailed Drongo Projects and the Hot Birds Project, see the Hot Birds Project page.

Key co-supporters
DST-NRF CoE grant; Australian Research Council.

Research team 2019
Assoc. Prof. Amanda Ridley (FIAO, UCT and UWA)
Dr Thomas Flower (FIAO, UCT and Capilano University)
Dr Martha Nelson-Flower (U. British Colombia)
Dr Susie Cunningham (FIAO, UCT)
Prof. Claire Spottiswoode (FIAO, UCT and U. Cambridge)
Prof. Andrew Mckechnie (U. Pretoria)

Students:  Amanda Bourne (PhD, UCT); Benjamin Murphy (PhD, UCT); Camilla Soravia (PhD, UWA).

Research assistants:  Grace Blackburn, Lesedi Moagi, Lena Pina Ramirez, Sanjo Rose.