Current Research Programmes

Intra-African bird migration

Globally, migrant birds are at greater risk of extinction than are resident species. To date, the emphasis has been on long-distance, inter-continental migrants. We are employing a broad-scale spatial approach to address questions of connectivity, movement, variation and speciation in focal intra-African migrant birds that breed across western, eastern and southern Africa. Since mid-2015, we have established study sites in Nigeria and Ghana for western, Uganda for eastern and South Africa for southern Africa.

Little is known about the migratory routes, timings, drivers, connectivity and environmental prescriptions of intra-continental migrant birds  compared to inter-continental migrants. This project aims to investigate migratory patterns of focal intra-African migrant birds. Fieldwork is conducted during the sub-regional breeding seasons of target species, which include Woodland Kingfisher Halcyon senegalensis, African Pygmy Kingfisher Ispidina picta, Diederik Cuckoo Chrysococcyx caprius and Klaas’ Cuckoo Chrysoccyx klaas.

An array of methods is being used to better understand these migrants. To address connectivity, we are using single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and mitochondrial DNA sequence analysis to explore genetic differentiation across each species’ range. To investigate movement patterns, we are relying on ringing data, stable isotope analysis of the oldest primary feather and telemetry data from geolocators deployed on suitable species. Phenotypic variation in vocalisations are being explored across the range and between genetically distinct populations. Analyses of these datasets with environmental data will facilitate statistical models to more accurately direct conservation action and possibly indicate anthropogenic-drivers of speciation.

Activities in 2016

  • The first southern African field season was completed (Nov 2015-Jan 2016). Three study areas were visited in the Limpopo Province, where samples were collected from 15 Woodland Kingfishers, five African Pygmy Kingfishers, 16 Diederik Cuckoos and three Red-chested Cuckoos Cuculus solitarius.
  • The first western African field season was completed (Jun-Jul 2016). One study area in Nigeria and two in Ghana were visited, collecting samples from three Woodland Kingfishers and seven Diederik Cuckoos. During an earlier site reconnaissance, samples were collected from three African Pygmy Kingfishers. The small number of samples collected was attributed to commencing the field season late due to logistical constraints.
  • The first eastern African field season was completed (Aug 2016). One study area in Uganda was visited, collecting samples from three Woodland Kingfishers and two African Pygmy Kingfishers. Again, the low number of samples collected was attributed to a late and short field season due to logistical constraints.
  • Ten light archival geolocators were donated by the Swiss Ornithological Society for use on Woodland Kingfishers during the 2016-2017 southern African field season.
  • Sound data for all target species archived in the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology were donated to aid the vocalisation analysis.


  • A story publicising the project was published in The Conversation Africa in May 2016 - (
  • Fitz MSc student Ditiro Moloto was able to join the expedition to Uganda for the eastern African field season. Ditiro contributed immensely to the field work and gained valuable field techniques from the experience.
  • Preliminary analysis of differences in frequency- and time-based vocalisation parameters in Woodland Kingfisher calls recorded in Ghana, Uganda and South Africa was presented as part of a talk by Dr Samuel Temidayo Osinubi at the 14th Pan-African Ornithological Congress in Dakar, Senegal.
  • During the just-concluded 2016-2017 southern African field season, samples were collected from 12 Woodland Kingfishers, with seven geolocators successfully deployed. Samples also were collected from three African Pygmy Kingfishers, six Diederik Cuckoos, two Klaas’ Cuckoos and one Red-chested Cuckoo.

Impact of the project

This project addresses the research, conservation and policy gaps concerning intra-African migrant birds. We are facilitating a research network that links institutions across Africa, providing a near-regional operating base for other students and researchers to utilise in answering diverse questions about intra-African migrant birds. This network serves to support the objectives of the UNEP/CMS African-Eurasian Migratory Land-birds Action Plan (AEMLAP) and the Migrant Landbird Study Group (MLSG).

Key co-sponsors

DST-NRF CoE grant; National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG); International Foundation for Science; BirdLife West Africa Sub-Regional office; A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute.

Research team

Dr Samuel Temidayo Osinubi (FIAO, UCT)
Prof. Desire Dalton (NZG)
Dr Phoebe Barnard (FIAO, UCT)
Prof. Peter Ryan (FIAO, UCT)