Postdoctoral Fellows

Dr Petra Sumasgutner


Dr Petra Sumasgutner
PhD (University of Vienna, Austria)


John Day Building: 1.02
Tel: +27 (0)21 650 3292


Petra comes from a remote village in the Austrian Alps and always dreamt of exploring the world and its wildlife, especially in biodiversity hotspots. Because of this she signed up for various fieldwork opportunities that took her to the rainforests of Costa Rica, remote islands of Indonesia, and SCUBA based work in the Red Sea. She made the decision to follow an academic career when she initiated the Viennese Kestrel Project that ultimately became her PhD project, funded by the Austrian Academy of Science. Petra usually develops her research ideas when working in the field and observing behaviours or patterns. After graduating from the University of Vienna, she has been involved in a variety of post-doc projects, bringing her to Northern Finland, where she focused on how agricultural intensification influences the demography of Eurasian Kestrels, and Southern Africa, where she established the Urban Raptor Research Group at the Fitz together with Arjun Amar.

Research interests

Urban raptor ecology
Ever since her PhD studies on urban Eurasian Kestrels, Petra has been fascinated by urban raptors and how different species adapt to highly urbanised environments. The FitzPatrick Institute hosts two long-term data-sets of urban raptor populations, representing several decades of data collected on Black Sparrowhawks (by Ann Koeslag, volunteer in the project) and Peregrine Falcons (by Andrew Jenkins). Together with her collaborators, Petra aims to ultimately understand the population viability, by exploring productivity, individual health, and the impact of survival, immigration and emigration on these city populations. Petra recently joined the Urban Crowned Eagle Project (PI: Shane McPherson, UKZN) that focused on human-wildlife conflicts emerging from large forest eagles breeding in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and potentially preying on livestock or pets.

Maintenance of colour polymorphism
Colour polymorphism has long fascinated evolutionary ecologists, because the occurrence of two or more colour morphs within one population goes against the idea that natural selection should favour the optimal phenotype for an environment. Colour polymorphism is common in raptors, particularly within Accipiter hawks (25% of species are polymorphic). We study the Black Sparrowhawks, where adults show either a dark or a light plumage, to understand how colour morphs influence breeding performance and long-term fitness of individuals. We specifically focus on the mechanisms behind an observed advantage of breeding with the opposite morph. Our studies showed that mixed-morph breeding pairs have higher productivity and their offspring shows higher survival rates compared to like-morph breeding pairs.

Health impacts of urbanisation
A major focus of Petra’s current research is the use of mechanistic approaches to understand the potential vulnerability of different bird species to global change, which includes urbanisation and climate change. With her collaborators and students, she studies the behavioural and ecophysiological responses of birds to urbanisation, with a focus on fitness consequences associated with potential trade-offs emerging from the exposure to urban stressors, dietary shifts or changes in parasite assemblages. She accessed a joint project fund from STINT (Sweden, where she collaborates with Lund University; co-PI: Caroline Isaksson) and NRF (co-PI: Arjun Amar). The joint project aims to establish a biomarker approach at the FitzPatrick Institute by proving funding for mobility of South African students to gain laboratory experience abroad, and by organising workshops with collaborating experts in the field. We currently use urban Black Sparrowhawk population, and the Red-winged starlings on campus as suitable study systems.

Research programmes

  • Understanding urban raptor populations; Twitter: @urbanraptors
  • Understanding colour polymorphism in birds
  • Global change and urban birds: Impacts of heat stress and junk food in a city dwelling Red-winged Starling population

Current students


Carina Nebel: Understanding the mechanism promoting polymorphism in Black Sparrowhawks on the Cape Peninsula (Co-supervisor: Arjun Amar)


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

Laura Wemer: Kestrels as city slickers? Unravelling physiological mechanisms of how avian top predators cope with urban life (University of Vienna, Co-Supervisor: Anita Gamauf)

MSc Conservation Biology

Sarah Catto: How does the variation in anthropogenic food availability associated with urbanisation impact the breeding performance of Red-winged Starlings on a university campus? (Co-supervisors: Susan Cunningham and Arjun Amar)

BSc Hons

Samantha Kirves: Blood-parasites in the polymorphic Black Sparrowhawk across South Africa (Co-supervisors: Gareth Tate and Arjun Amar)

Graduated students

Miqkayla Stofberg (BSc Hons 2017) Juggling a junk-food diet: Foraging strategies of an urban bird in response to fluctuating anthropogenic-food availability. (Co-supervisors: Susan Cunningham and Arjun Amar)

Sanjo Rose (BSc Hons 2016) Seasonality influences reproductive performance in an urban raptor population along an urban gradient (Co-supervisor: Arjun Amar)

Marius Adriøn (MSc 2015, University of Vienna) Parasites, body condition, immune competence and genetic diversity of Common Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) in Vienna (Co-Supervisor: Anita Gamauf)

Jessleena Suri (MSc CB 2015) Street-wise: does prey abundance buffer Black Sparrowhawks (Accipiter melanoleucus) from the negative health impacts of urbanisation? (Co-supervisor: Eleonore Hellard and Arjun Amar)

Campbell Fleming (BSc Hons 2015) Exploring the function of nest decoration in Black Sparrowhawks (Accipiter melanoleucus). (Co-supervisor: Arjun Amar)

Anna Kreiderits (MSc 2014, University of Vienna) The influence of alternative diet composition in an urban habitat on the breeding success of Eurasian Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) in Vienna. (Co-Supervisor: Anita Gamauf)

Juan Millán (MSc CB 2014) Multi-nest building in Black Sparrowhawks (Accipiter melanoleucus), an adequate strategy to cope with Egyptian Geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca) conflict in an urbanised landscape? (Co-supervisor: Arjun Amar)

Recent peer-reviewed publications


Sumasgutner, P., Adrion, M. and Gamauf, A. 2018. Carotenoid coloration and health status of urban Eurasian kestrels (Falco tinnunculus). PLoS ONE 13: e0191956.

Sumasgutner, P., Rose, S., Koeslag, A.  and Amar, A. 2018.  Exploring the influence of urbanization on morph distribution and morph-specific breeding performance in a polymorphic African raptor Journal of Raptor Research 52(1).


Rose, S.*, Sumasgutner, P.*, Koeslag, A. and Amar, A. 2017. Does seasonal decline in breeding performance differ for an African raptor across an urbanisation gradient? Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 5(47). (* contributed equally to the manuscript)

Suri, J., Sumasgutner, P.,  Hellard, E., Koeslag, A. and Amar, A. 2017. Stability in prey abundance may buffer Black Sparrowhawks from health impacts of urbanisation Ibis 159:38–54.


Kreiderits, A., Gamauf, A., Krenn, H.W. & Sumasgutner, P. 2016. Investigating the influence of local weather conditions and alternative prey composition on the breeding performance of urban Eurasian kestrels (Falco tinnunculus). Bird Study

Sumasgutner, P., Millán, J., Curtis, O., Koelsag, A. and Amar, A. 2016. Is multiple nest building an adequate strategy to cope with inter-species nest usurpation? BMC Evolutionary Biology 16:97.

Sumasgutner, P., Tate, G.J., Koeslag, A. and Amar, A. 2016. Family morph matters: factors determining survival and recruitment in a long-lived polymorphic raptor. Journal of Animal Ecology 85:1043–1055.

Sumasgutner, P., Tate, G., Koeslag, A. and Amar, A. 2016. Seasonal home ranges of black sparrowhawks (Accipiter melanoleucus) breeding in an urban environmen. Bird Study.

Tate, G., Sumasgutner, P., Koeslag, A. and Amar, A. 2016. Pair complementarity influences reproductive output in the polymorphic black sparrowhawk (Accipiter melanoleucus). Journal of Avian Biology.