Academic staff

Dr Robert Thomson

Dr Robert Thomson
PhD (Oulu, Finland)

John Day Building: 2.06
Tel: +27 (0)21 650 3699


Activities and research interests

Robert has a broad interest in bird ecology, but is especially interested in between-species interactions. He comes from Pretoria, and grew up birding and ringing in the bushveld areas. He did his undergraduate studies at the University of Pretoria, studying mixed species bird flocks for his BSc Hons. These studies led to him being a field assistant in northern Finland. This stint became his MSc thesis at the University of Oulu, which tested the heterospecific attraction hypothesis that migrant songbirds attract to resident songbirds during their habitat selection decisions. He continued with his PhD in Oulu, further investigating the positive associations in Boreal bird communities, but incorporating the interplay of negative, predation and competition, interactions. He defended his thesis in 2006, and moved to southern Finland to take up a post-doc position at the University of Turku investigating various aspects of raptors and their impact on songbird community structure.

During the avian influenza (AI) crises in 2007, Robert led AI surveillance efforts in Cambodia for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and assisted with surveillance work in Mongolia. He then returned to Finland where he held a series of research fellowships investigating avian habitat selection decisions in the face of ‘enemies’ and the life history of endangered wader populations in the Bothnian bay.

In addition to these ongoing projects, Robert has initiated three new research projects in the last few years that use unique study systems to answer questions of interest. He has been working on:

  • The importance of Sociable Weaver colonies in the Kalahari and their use by other avian species and other taxa. Investigating how these communities and their interactions change at weaver nests across aridity gradients. This work has also focused on the African Pygmy Falcon, an obligate user of these weaver nests, and their life history and interactions with their weaver hosts.
  • Understanding front-line defences in brood parasite – host interactions. For these studies he is using the redstart-common cuckoo system, unique because the redstart is the only known cavity nesting host of the common cuckoo, that present interesting challenges for the cuckoo.
  • An applied project to understand the role of farmers in vulture conservation in southern Africa. Taking interdisciplinary approaches to understand the factors that affect the use of poison by farmers and human-wildlife conflicts. And focusing on the role that supplementary feeding efforts by farmers can play, and assessing the services that vultures may provide in terms of carcass.

Current students

Diana Bolopo: Interations and coevolution between African Pygmy Falcons Polihierax semitorquatus and Sociable Weavers Philetairus socius.

Timothy Khan Aikins: Costs and benefits of Sociable weaver nests to their Camelthorn hosts. (Co-supervisor: Michael Cramer)
Christiaan Brink: Investigating the viability and potential impact of vulture restaurants as a strategy to conserve South Africa's plummeting vulture populations. (Co-supervisors: Arjun Amar, Andrea Santangeli)
Anthony Lowney: Weaver nests as a resource to Kalahari animals: positive associations in the structure and function of a community in a stressful environment.
Angela Moreras: Habitat selection as a front-line defence against brood parasitism
Olufemi Olubodun: Nests as a resource in arid environments: interactios of the Kalahari animal community.
Jessleena Suri: Understanding the influence of urban landscape structure on biodiversity in South African cities. (Main supervisor: Res Altwegg, co-supervisor: Pippin Anderson)

Masters (Dissertation)
Rona van der Merwe: Ecology of breeding and non-breeding Pied Crows in a semi-arid Karoo landscape. (Main supervisor: Arjun Amar)
Mira Sassi. (University of Oulu) Nest defence behaviour in a Common cuckoo host (Co-supervisor: Jere Tolvanen (Oulu))

Graduated students (UCT)

Kate Carstens (2017) Nest boxes as a conservation tool for the Southern Ground Hornbill Bucorvus Leadbeateri. (Co-supervisors: Peter Ryan, Rob Little)

Masters (Dissertation)
Andrew de Blocq van Scheltinga (2017) Assessing the impacts of bat-based tourism on waterbirds at De Hoop Vlei. (Co-supervisor: Peter Ryan)

Masters (Conservation Biology)
Tapiwa Zimunya: (2018) Vulture restaurants and their influence on the demography of vultures in Southern Africa. (Co-supervisor: Arjun Amar)
Christie Craig (2017) An assessment of the anthropogenic threats to vultures in the communal farmlands of Namibia. (Co-supervisor: Andrea Santangeli)
Carles Dura (2017) Quantifying the level of predation on tortoises by pied crows in south western South Africa. (Co-supervisor: Arjun Amar)
Angela Ferguson (2016) Using conditioned food aversion to reduce Pied Crow predation of plover nests. (Co-supervisor: Tom Flower)

Jess Lund (2018) Thermoregulation in free-ranging Pygmy Falcon (Polihierax semitorquatus). (Co-supervisors: Andrew McKechnie and Diana Bolopo)
Kervin Prayag (2016) Do camelthorn trees use Sociable Weavers to forage for nutrients? (Co-supervisor: Mike Cramer)
Carla du Toit (2016) Colonial birds engineer islands of fertility in an arid savanna. (Co-supervisor: Mike Cramer)
Billi Krochuk (2017) Investigating the unique defaecation behaviour of Pygmy Falcons: benefit or by-product? (Co-supervisors: Claire Spottiswoode and Diana Bolopo)
Eleanor Weideman (2017)Responses of avian phylogenetic diversity to land use change. (Co-supervisors: Bernard Coetzee and Jasper Slingsby)

Graduated from other Universities

Jere Tolvanen (2018) Ecological consequences and heritability of social information use in animals. University of Oulu, Finland (Co-supervisors: Jukka Forsman (Oulu), Veli-Matti Pakanen (Oulu))
Chiara Morosinotto (2012) Predator-prey interactions in forest bird communities: effects of avian predators on habitat selection, reproductive success and anti-predator behaviours. University of Turku,
Finland (with Prof E. Korpimäki).
Pälvi Salo (2009) On lethal and nonlethal impacts of native, alien and intraguild predators - evidence of top-down control. University of Turku, Finland (main supervisor: Prof E. Korpimäki).

Masters (Dissertation)
Selengemurun Dembereldagva (2014) Migration and wintering areas of waterfowl linked to avian influenza outbreaks in Mongolia. Mongolian State University of Agriculture, Mongolia. (co-supervisor Dr. Khukhuu)
Chhin Sophea (2011) A Comparison of Bird Communities in Disturbed and Pristine Forest in Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, Southwest Cambodia. Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia (co-supervisor Howie Nielson)

Bongani Prince Ngomane (2017) A comparison of species richness anddiversityof sub-canopy communities between trees with and without Sociable Weaver colonies. Tshwane University of Technology (Co-supervisor: Willem Mybergh (TUT))

Recent peer-reviewed publications
For a full list of Robert's publications, go to Google Scholar.