Academic Staff

Dr Susan Cunningham

  PhD (Massey University, NZ)
  John Day Building: 2.03
  Tel: +27 (0)21 650 3306
  Fax: +27 (0)21 650 3295


  Visit the Hot Birds Project website here


Susie grew up in New Zealand and obtained her BSc in Ecology & Biodiversity from Victoria University of Wellington. She completed her honours and PhD at Massey University in the Manawatu, working initially on the foraging behaviour of kiwi, and expanding her research into non-visual senses used by probing birds, including kiwi (Apterygidae), ibises (Threskiornithidae) and shorebirds (Scolopacidae). Susie discovered that a unique anatomy and associated vibro-tactile sense thought only to exist in shorebirds has also evolved in kiwi and ibises – suggesting a beautiful case of convergent or parallel evolution. Susie’s PhD was awarded in 2011.

Susie accepted a post doctoral fellowship at the Fitztitute in 2010 to work on the ‘Hot Birds’ desert birds and climate change programme, in conjunction with Prof. Phil Hockey and core Centre of Excellence team member Prof. Andrew McKechnie (University of Pretoria). Following Phil’s sad and untimely passing in 2013, Susie accepted an extension to her fellowship to continue managing the University of Cape Town branch of ‘Hot Birds’ in collaboration with Prof. McKechnie. Susie was appointed to the post of Lecturer in 2015 and is continuing the ‘Hot Birds’ programme as well as taking a hand in the co-ordination of the Conservation Biology Masters course.

Research interests

Hot birds: understanding the vulnerability of arid zone birds to climate change: A major focus of Susie’s current research is the use of mechanistic approaches to understand the potential vulnerability of different bird species to climate change. Together with her collaborators and students, she studies the behavioural and ecophysiological responses of birds to high temperatures, with a focus on fitness consequences associated with thermoregulatory trade-offs. Susie works closely with Prof. Andrew McKechnie and Dr Ben Smit on these questions, using predominantly Kalahari species, but also fynbos birds, as model taxa.

Behavioural ecology in a changing world: Susie is interested in the behavioural flexibility of animals in the face of ecological change: how environmental factors, particularly temperature and aridity, drive behavioural decisions. She is especially interested in the consequences of these decisions for individual fitness, sociality, and the evolution of life history strategies.

Sensory ecology: Susie is particularly interested in the non-visual senses used by animals –especially birds - in foraging and social interactions, the ecological pressures that lead to the favouring of non-visual senses, and the connections between sensory systems and behaviour.

Research programmes

Hot Birds - Climate change and desert birds; Pied Babblers and Fork-tailed Drongos; Smart beaks - non-visual senses in birds; Global change and urban birds

Current students


Shannon Conradie:  Acute and chronic heat stress risk in Kalahari Desert birds under past,  present, and future climates  (Co-supervisors: Andrew McKechnie and Blair Wolf) (Registered at U.Pretoria)

Carla du Toit: The mechanosensory structures in the bills of Ibises (Family: Threskiornithidae) in relation to their feeding ecology (Co-supervisor: Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan)

Ben Murphy: Taking the heat: how do parent birds mitigate costs of breeding at high temperatures?  (Co-supervisor: Thomas Flower)

Nick Pattinson: Effects of temperature and resource availability in the reproductive ecology of an arid zone bird (Co-supervisor: Andrew McKechnie)

Miqkayla Stofberg: Global change and urban birds: impacts of heat stress and junk food on foraging and body condition in Red-winged Starlings (Co-supervisor: Arjun Amar)

Michelle Thompson: Climate change and arid zone birds: validation of a behavioural index for assessing species' relative vulnerabilities to rising temperatures (Co-supervisor: Andrew McKechnie) (Registered at U.Pretoria)


Carrie Hickman: Climate change impacts on breeding success in Southern Ground Hornbills. (Co-supervisor: Rita Covas)

Jessica Roberts:  Dune Lark thermoregulation behaviour and microhabitat use in the northern Namib Sand Sea. (Co-supervisor: Andrew McKechnie) (Registered at U.Pretoria)

Graduated students

Varalika Jain (MSc CB 2021) How common ravens (Corvus corax) exploit anthropogenic food sources through time and space in a semi-transformed, alpine environment. (Co-supervisors: Petra Sumasgutner and Thomas Bugnyar) 

Amanda Bourne (PhD, UCT, 2020): Can social behaviour, particularly load-sharing, buffer against fitness costs associated with heat stress? (Co-supervisors: Amanda Ridley, Claire Spottiswoode) 

Krista Oswald (PhD, Rhodes University, 2020) Vulnerability of a Fynbos-endemic bird to climate warming: insights from past and present responses to high temperatures (Co-supervisors: Ben Smit, Alan Lee)

Jack Harper (MSc CB 2020)  Assessing the climate change vulnerability of reptile and amphibian species found within Table Mountain National Park  (Co-supervisers: Wendy Foden and Nicola van Wilgen) 

Matthew Orolowitz (MSc CB 2020): Life on the edge: does body size dictate how birds deal with the heat in South Africa's most extreme desert?

Taylyn Risi (BSc Hons, 2019) How does urbanisation affect diet, range size and mass maintenance in Red-winged starlings (Co-supervisor: Petra Sumasgutner)

Kerry-Ann Grey (MSc CB 2019) Has a recent shift in local climate regime allowed incipient range expansion of Aloidendron dichotomum? (Co-supervisors: Wendy Foden, Guy Midgeley)

Sarah Catto (MSc CB 2018) Fluctuating human activity and associated anthropogenic food availability affect behaviour and parental care of Red-winged starlings. (Co-supervisors: Arjun Amar, Petra Sumasgutner)

Tanja van de Ven (PhD 2017) Implications of climate change for the reproductive behaviour and performance of the desert-dwelling Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas) (Co-supervisors: Andrew McKechnie, Peter Ryan).

Jerry Molepo (MSc 2017, NMU) Foraging behaviour and thermal physiology in Cape Sugarbirds: gender specific responses to temperature (Co-supervisor: Ben Smit)

Ryan Olinger (MSc CB 2017) How does temperature affect Fork-tailed Drongo, Dicrurus adsimilis foraging effort, nestling provisioning and growth rates? (Co-supervisor: Tom Flower)

Penny Pistorius (MSc CB 2016) How air temperature affects flight initiation distance in arid-zone birds (Co-supervisor: Rowan Martin)

Salamatu Abdu (MSc CB 2015) Spatial use of the landscape by Kalahari birds in relation to temperature and the location of water holes

Robyn Milne (MSc CB 2014) Physiological consequences of high temperatures in fynbos birds and implications for climate change. (Co-supervisors: Peter Ryan, Ben Smit, Alan Lee)

Phenias Sadondo (MSc CB 2014)The influence of temperature on parental investment in southern fiscals and consequences for nestling growth. (Co-supervisors: Peter Ryan, Rowan Martin)

Gina Louw (MSc CB 2011) How will climate change affect birds in hot African deserts? (Co-supervisors: Phil Hockey, Rowan Martin)

Katherine du Plessis (MSc CB 2011) Heat tolerance of Southern Pied Babblers in the Kalahari Desert: how will they respond to climate change?  (Co-supervisors: Phil Hockey, Amanda Ridley, Rowan Martin)

Recent peer-reviewed publications


Bourne, A.R., Ridley, A.R., McKechnie, A.E., Spottiswoode, C.N. and Cunningham, S.J. 2021. Dehydration risk is associated with reduced nest attendance and hatching success in a cooperatively breeding bird, the Southern Pied babbler Turdoides bicolorConservation Physiology 9. 

Bourne, A.R., Ridley, A.R., Spottiswoode, C.N. and Cunningham, S.J. 2021. Direct and indirect effects of high temperatures on fledging in a cooperatively breeding bird. Behavioral Ecology 

Cunningham, S.J., Gardner, J.L. and Martin, R.O. 2021. Opportunity costs and the response of birds and mammals to climate warming. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 19: 300-307. 

McKechnie, A.E., Rushworth, I.A., Myburgh, F. and Cunningham, S.J. 2021. Mortality among birds and bats during an extreme heat event in eastern South Africa. Austral Ecology 46: 687-691. 

Moagi, L.L., Bourne, A.R., Cunningham, S.J., Jansen, R., Ngcamphalala, C.A., Ganswindt, A., Ridley, A.R. and McKechnie, A.E. 2021. Hot days are associated with short-term adrenocortical responses in a Southern African arid-zone passerine bird. Journal of Experimental Biology 224. 

Oswald, K.N., Smit, B., Lee, A.T., Peng, C.L., Brock, C. and Cunningham, S.J. 2021. Higher temperatures are associated with reduced nestling body condition in a range‐restricted mountain bird. Journal of Avian Biology 

Risi, T.C., Sumasgutner, P. and Cunningham, S.J. 2021. Anthropogenic food availability and body mass maintenance in urban Red-winged Starlings Onychognathus morio. Ostrich 

Van Jaarsveld, B., Bennett, N.C., Czenze, Z.J., Kemp, R., van de Ven, T.M.Cunningham, S.J. and McKechnie, A.E. 2021. How hornbills handle heat: sex-specific thermoregulation in the southern yellow-billed hornbill. Journal of Experimental Biology 224. 


Bourne, A.R., Cunningham, S.J., Spottiswoode, C.N. and Ridley, A.R. 2020. Hot droughts compromise interannual survival across all group sizes in a cooperatively breeding bird. Ecology Letters 

Bourne, A.R, Cunningham, S.J., Spottiswoode, C., Ridley, A.R. 2020. Compensatory breeding in years following drought in a desert-dwelling cooperative breeder. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 8: 190

Bourne, A.R, Cunningham, S.J., Spottiswoode, C., Ridley, A.R. 2020. High temperatures drive offspring mortality in a cooperatively breeding bird. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 287 (1931): 20201140

du Toit C.J., Chinsamy A., and Cunningham S.J. 2020 Cretaceous origins of the vibrotactile bill-tip organ in birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 287. 

Oswald, K.N., Diener, E.F., Diener, J.P., Cunningham, S.J., Smit, B. and Lee, A.T.K. 2020. Increasing temperatures increase the risk of reproductive failure in a near threatened alpine ground‐nesting bird, the Cape Rockjumper Chaetops frenatusIbis

Pattinson, N.B., Thompson, M.L., Griego, M., Russell, G., Mitchell, N.J., Martin, R.O., Wolf, B.O., Smit, B., Cunningham, S.J., McKechnie, A.E. and Hockey, P.A. 2020. Heat dissipation behaviour of birds in seasonally hot, arid‐zones: are there global patterns? Journal of Avian Biology  

Rat, M., Mathe‐Hubert, H., McKechnie, A.E., Sueur, C. and Cunningham, S.J. 2020. Extreme and variable environmental temperatures are linked to reduction of social network cohesiveness in a highly social passerine. Oikos IF: 3.370

Van de Ven, T.M.F.N., McKechnie, A.E., Er, S. & Cunningham, S.J. 2020. High temperatures are associated with substantial reductions in breeding success and offspring quality in an arid-zone bird. Oecologia in press.


Bourne, A.R., McKechnie, A.E., Cunningham, S.J., Ridley, A.R., Woodborne, S.M. and Karasov, W.H. 2019. Non-invasive measurement of metabolic rates in wild, free-living birds using doubly labelled water. Functional Ecology 33(1): 162-174.

Conradie, S.R., Woodborne, S.M, Cunningham, S.J. and McKechnie, A.E. 2019. Chronic, sublethal effects of high temperatures will cause severe declines in southern African arid-zone birds during the 21st century. PNAS. 116 (28): 14065-14070

Oswald, K., Smit, B., Lee, A.T.K. and Cunningham, S.J. 2019. Behaviour of an alpine range-restricted species is described by interactions between microsite-use and temperature. Animal Behaviour 157:177-187.

Stofberg, M., Cunningham, S.J., Sumasgutner, P. and Amar, A. 2019. Juggling a “junk-food” diet: responses of an urban bird to fluctuating anthropogenic-food availability. Urban Ecosystems. DOI: 10.1007/s11252-019-00885-3

Van de Ven, T.M.F.N., McKechnie, A.E. and Cunningham, S.J. 2019. The costs of keeping cool: behavioural trade-offs between foraging and thermoregulation are associated with significant mass losses in an arid-zone bird. Oecologia 191:205-215.


Abdu, K.S., Lee, A.T.K, and Cunningham, S.J. 2018. The presence of artificial water points structures an arid-zone avian community over small spatial scales. Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology. 89 (4): 339-346.

Abdu, S., McKechnie, A.E., Lee, A.T.K. and Cunningham, S.J. 2018. Can providing shade at water points help Kalahari birds beat the heat? Journal of Arid Environments 152: 21-27.

Cunningham, S.J. 2018. Birds of the arid zones: living life on the edge. Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology. 89 (4): 297-298.

Thompson, M.L, Cunningham, S.J. and McKechnie, A.E. 2018. Interspecific variation in avian thermoregulatory patterns and heat dissipation behaviours in a subtropical desert. Physiology and Behavior 188: 311-323.


Cunningham, S.J., Thompson, M.L. and McKechnie, A.E. 2017. It’s cool to be dominant: social status alters short-term risks of heat stress. Journal of Experimental Biology.

Reynolds, S.M., Castro, I., Alley, M.R. and Cunningham, S.J. 2017. Apteryx spp. (Kiwi) possess an uropygial gland: anatomy and pathology. European Journal of Anatomy 21: 125-139.


Cunningham, S.J., Madden, C., Barnard, P. and Amar, A. 2016. Electric crows: power lines, climate change and the emergence of a native invader. Diversity and Distributions 22: 17-29 (Published online 18 December 2015; published in hard copy January 2016).

Smit, B., Zietsman, G., Martin, R.O., Cunningham, S.J., McKechnie, A.E. and Hockey, P.A.R. 2016. Behavioural responses to heat in desert birds: implications for predicting vulnerability to climate warming. Climate Change Responses 3: 9.

Van de Ven, T.M.F.N., Martin, R.O., Vink, T.J.F., McKechnie, A.E. and Cunningham, S.J. 2016. Regulation of heat exchange across the hornbill beak: functional similarities with toucans? PLoS ONE 11: e0154768.


Cunningham, S.J., Martin, R.O., and Hockey, P.A.R. 2015. Can behaviour buffer the impacts of climate change on an arid-zone bird? Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 86(1&2): 119-126.

Martin, R.O., Cunningham, S.J. and Hockey, P.A.R. 2015. Elevated temperatures drive fine-scale patterns of habitat use in a savannah bird community. Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 86(1&2): 127-135.

Milne, R., Cunningham, S.J., Lee, A. and Smit, B. 2015. The role of thermal physiology in recent declines of birds in a biodiversity hotspot. Conservation Physiology  3:1-17


Cunningham, S.J., Martin, R.O., Hojem, C.L. and Hockey, P.A.R. 2013. Temperatures in excess of critical thresholds threaten nestling growth and survival in a rapidly-warming arid savanna: a study of common fiscals. PLoS One 8(9):e74613.

Cunningham, S.J., Corfield, J.R., Iwaniuk, A.N., Castro, I., Alley, M.R., Birkhead, T.R. and Parsons, S. 2013. The anatomy of the bill tip of Kiwi and associated somatosensory regions of the brain: comparisons with shorebirds. PLoS ONE 8(11):e80036.

Cunningham, S.J., Kruger, A.C., Nxumalo, M.P. and Hockey, P.A.R. 2013. Identifying biologically meaningful hot-weather events using threshold temperatures that affect life-history. PLoS One 8:e82492.


Du Plessis, K.L., Martin, R.W., Hockey, P.A.R., Cunningham, S.J. and Ridley, A.R. 2012. The costs of keeping cool in a warming world: implications of high temperatures for foraging, thermoregulation and body condition of an arid-zone bird. Global Change Biology 18:3063-3070.


Cunningham S.J., Alley, M.R, and Castro, I. 2011. Facial bristle feather histology and morphology in New Zealand birds: implications for function. Journal of Morphology 272:118-218.

Cunningham S.J. and Castro I. 2011. The secret life of wild brown kiwi: studying behaviour of a cryptic species by direct observation. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 35:209-219.


Castro, I., Cunningham, S.J., Gsell, A.C., Jaffe, K., Cabrera, A. and Liendo, C. 2010. Olfaction in birds: a closer look at the kiwi (Apterygidae). Journal of Avian Biology 41:213-218.

Cunningham, S.J., Alley, M.R., Castro, I., Potter, M.A., Cunningham, M. and Pyne, M.J. 2010. Bill morphology of ibises suggests a remote-tactile sensory system for prey detection. The Auk 127(2):308-316.

Cunningham, S.J., Castro I., Potter M.A. and Jensen T. 2010. Remote touch prey-detection by Madagascar crested ibises Lophotibis cristata urschi. Journal of Avian Biology 41:350-353.