Nightjar superstars!

PhD student Ryan O'Connor has just published brand new research on the record-breaking evaporative cooling prowess of Southern African nightjars. Nightjars roost and nest in the open and experience temperatures 60C + ... but somehow manage to maintain their body temperature near 40C all the same. Read his blog about how they do it:

Can you see her?? Incubating Rufous-cheeked Nightjar. Because of its superb camouflage, the incubating female is very difficult to see, but she is inside of the black circle (full size picture and zoomed in...).

Can you see her?? Incubating Rufous-cheeked Nightjar. Because of its superb camouflage, the incubating female is very difficult to see, but she is inside of the black circle (full size picture and zoomed in...).

“Nightjars are crepuscular and nocturnal aerial insectivores. During the day, some nightjar species will roost and nest in sites that are devoid of shade and consequently are subjected to intense solar radiation. The combination of solar radiation, air temperature, convection and conduction can culminate into an overall heat index known as operative temperature. At some nightjar nest and roost sites, operative temperatures can approach 60 °C. Under these conditions, nightjars must evaporative body water to dissipate internal heat loads and maintain a normal body temperature. So, just how do nightjars tolerate such extremely high operative temperatures? The secret lies in their mechanism for evaporating water. Whereas most birds pant to evaporate water, nightjars, along with some members of other avian groups, evaporate water via a process known as gular fluttering. Gular fluttering consists of rapid movements of the gular region (i.e., throat). The advantage of gular fluttering over panting is that it does not involve the large movements of the thorax that is characteristic of panting. The movement of the thorax during panting demands an increase in energy expenditure. In contrast, when gular fluttering, nightjars can dissipate large heat loads without expending lots of energy. Thus, gular fluttering is typically regarded as an “energetically efficient” evaporative cooling mechanism. In other words, when exposed to operative temperatures far above body temperature, nightjars can dissipate large amounts of heat without large increases in their metabolism. This limits their endogenous heat production and minimizes their overall heat load. For example, O’Connor et al. (2016) found that at an operative temperature of 56 °C, Rufous-cheeked Nightjars dissipated an amount of heat that was equivalent to 515% of metabolic heat produced. This is the highest ratio of evaporative heat loss to metabolic heat produced ever recorded in a bird. At an operative temperature of 52 °C, O’Connor et al. (2016) observed Freckled Nightjars evaporating an amount of heat that was equivalent to 452% of metabolic heat produced. These extraordinary evaporative cooling capacities result in nightjars maintaining body temperatures far below operative temperatures.”

All go at Kuruman River Reserve

Sello tags the location of a new babbler nest (in the middle of the tree near the top) using a hand-held GPS

Sello tags the location of a new babbler nest (in the middle of the tree near the top) using a hand-held GPS

In a quick update from the field: SELLO MATJEE has arrived and is quickly settling in at the Pied Babbler Project, here he is marking the location of a new babbler nest. His experience working with larks has set him up well for keeping track of the babblers. His help is a welcome relief for AMANDA BOURNE who had been single-handedly dealing with a log-jam of simultaneous babbler nests (apart from one short week when SAMANTHA KIRVES was able to provide a hand)! Thanks Sello!

Fork-tailed drongo work is also progressing well, with experiments looking at the effect of temperature on provisioning and foraging effort of adult birds running smoothly. RYAN OLINGER and RITA LEAL have been so busy they haven't had time to send any photos as yet! The project looks like it's working well though, and we can't wait to see the data.

While everyone else is having fun in the field, we spare a thought for TANJA VAN DE VEN and MICHELLE THOMPSON who are head down writing up their PhD theses ...

Finally, check out our publications list for a new paper: BEN SMIT and team have finally published the inaugural paper on interspecific comparisons in heat stress behaviour in Kalahari birds: learn about the differences between birds that drink and birds that don't in their quest to keep cool here.



Updates from the babbler team

SAMANTHA KIRVES has been helping AMANDA BOURNE in the field for the past week, and they have been really busy keeping up with the breeding attempts of the pied babblers at Kuruman River Reserve. Tomorrow, Samantha will be finishing her internship and heading off, and SELLO MATJEE will be arriving to start his 3-month stint as babbler research assistant.

We thank Samantha for all of her efforts which have helped us enormously, and we wish her well with her next adventures! Samantha has been just a pleasure to work with and we will all miss her.

We are very excited to have Sello joining us in the field and looking forward to working with him. We will keep you posted!

Click on the picture below to scroll through images of Samantha and Amanda weighing nestlings and setting a camera to record provisioning and nest brooding effort by babbler parents and helpers.

News from the dunes (& beyond)

It's all go in field! We have updates from the red dunes, the Cape mountains and the new temperature-controlled facility at the University of Pretoria:

Krista with a cape rockjumper

Krista with a cape rockjumper

  • MATT NOAKES is busy building aviaries for his field season for an translocation experiment to understand drivers of heat tolerance in white-browed sparrow-weavers.
  • AMANDA BOURNE is about to be joined by SAMANTHA KIRVES at Kuruman River Reserve where the pied babbler breeding season is off to a flying start! Virtually all of the groups we follow are either nest-building, incubating or feeding chicks! Samantha will help Amanda keep on top of it all until SELLO MATJEE can get into the field to lend a hand in mid-October.
  • RYAN OLINGER is also inundated: his fork-tailed drongos are likewise all attempting to breed early this season (making up for last year's El Nino-related wipe-out?) and he is busy perfecting experiments that will let him unpick the mechanisms linking high temperature to changes in foraging and provisioning rates in these birds.
  • SUSIE CUNNINGHAM has just returned from the dunes, where she was helping Ryan and Amanda get started and assessing what is happening with the yellow-billed hornbills (TANJA VAN DE VEN is busy writing her PhD thesis on these) ... Susie and Tanja found that although the birds have paired up for the season and are inspecting boxes and cavities, breeding activity hasn't started yet.
  • MARGAUX RAT and SAMANTHA KIRVES have completed building fully collapsible and portable aviaries for use in the temperature-controlled chambers at the University of Pretoria, for experiments looking at how temperature affects social networks in sociable weavers. CCTV cameras going in today and then we're almost ready for the birds!
  • KRISTA OSWALD is out in the Cape mountains collecting genetic samples from cape rockjumpers to understand how climates past, present and future affect gene flow between fragmented populations of this declining species.
No pain, no gain: margaux and samantha complete the collapsible aviaries at the temperature controlled facility in pretoria

No pain, no gain: margaux and samantha complete the collapsible aviaries at the temperature controlled facility in pretoria

Updates from the rest of the team will follow soon!

The Hot Birds team is pretty busy in the Kalahari

We are currently setting up several new projects in the Kalahari including:

  • Amanda Bourne (PhD candidate, University of Cape Town, SA) - has started her field season to explore how sociality can buffer the effects of climate change on fitness. She is working hard at Kuruman River Reserve for her first field season! We will keep posting on her progresses!
  • Margaux Rat (PostDoc, University of Cape Town, SA) has set up feeders near Askham for her newly recruited MSc student, Doreen Chaussadas (University of Strasbourg, FR), to investigate how elevated temperatures may impact local avian community. After less than 48 hours, 3/6 of the feeders were discovered and used by the birds, a promising start! Doreen will be starting her data collection in January! 
  • Ryan Olinger (MSc candidate, University of Cape Town, SA) has just arrived to Kuruman River Reserve to collect his data for his thesis entitled "How does temperature affect Fork-tailed Drongo, Dicrurus adsimilis, foraging effort, nestling food provisioning and growth rates?". More information on his project will be added soon so keep an eye on our blog and facebook page! 

Last but not least, the Hot Birds team would like to address its warmest thanks to our volunteer from Germany, Samantha Kirves, who assist us with many aspects of the Hot Birds Research over the past weeks, including digging deep holes in the Kalahari sand at the hottest time of the day, always with her smile on! Thank you Samantha! 


The Hot Birds Team

Amanda Bourne weighing southern pied babblers as part of her project to understand how sociality mediates the relationship between climate and fitness

Amanda Bourne weighing southern pied babblers as part of her project to understand how sociality mediates the relationship between climate and fitness

Margaux Rat setting up feeders across her fieldsite for a MSc project exploring the impact of elevated temperatures on the network of the local avian community.

Margaux Rat setting up feeders across her fieldsite for a MSc project exploring the impact of elevated temperatures on the network of the local avian community.

Welcome to our new research assistant, Sello Matjee

A warm welcome to Sello Matjee, our new research assistant. Appointed from October 2016, Sello is working with PhD student, Amanda Bourne, in the Kalahari, looking at physiological, behavioural, morphological, and phenological impacts of heat stress on cooperatively-breeding Southern Pied Babblers.

Now part of both the Hot Birds and Pied Babbler Research Project teams, Sello background is in behavioural ecology and parasitology. He completed first an Honours degree and then a Masters researching parental care behaviour in Chestnut-backed sparrow-lark (Eremopterix leucotis). After completing his studies, he worked at the University of Limpopo collecting data on avian ectoparasites. Sello is extremely passionate about birds and has five years of experience in ornithological research in South Africa. He is excited about broadening his horizons through this research project, learning more about Northern Cape birds, and trying some new research methodologies.  His background, using nest cameras and field observations to study parental care behaviour in Chestnut-backed sparrow-larks, has him set to hit the ground running in October.

We are very excited to have Sello joining our team!

Hot Birds at NAOC 2016 and on Facebook! Plus welcome to a new team member

Hot Birds team members from South Africa and the USA got together with colleagues from the US and Australia at the #NAOC2016 in Washington DC in August. We presented a full day symposium on the mechanisms underpinning birds' vulnerability and resilience to climate change, including physiological and behavioural thresholds and inflection points, changes in morphology and how these trends can be mapped in space and time. See our colleague Glenn Tattersall's blog post on the symposium here and some media coverage of the work presented by the Hot Birds behaviour team here.

We also launched a Facebook page @hotbirdsresearchproject in August, so you can follow our research and news there as well.

Samantha Kirves

Samantha Kirves

Finally, Samantha Kirves from Germany joined us as an intern in August. She is currently working with Tanja van de Ven extracting data on provisioning by yellow-billed hornbills from video footage in the lab, but will be heading into the field with Dr Margaux Rat in September to start work with sociable weavers. We are very excited to welcome Samantha!

The 2016/17 summer field season is about to start -- watch this space for news from the dunes.


Looking for a research assistant for Amanda Bourne - pied babblers

Project: Can sociality buffer against the impacts of climate change?

We invite applications for a full-time, three-month research assistant opportunity associated with the Fitz, a world-renowned Centre of Excellence in ornithological research. The position is based at the Kuruman River Reserve (KRR), a large research station home to the Kalahari Meerkat Project and the Pied Babbler Research Project. The research assistant will support a Fitz PhD student working on the Hot Birds Project.

The project focuses on exploring the relationship between social behaviour and vulnerability to climate change, specifically the impacts of extreme heat on fitness and population persistence in animals in arid environments and the extent to which cooperative behaviours might mitigate negative consequences of heat stress. Fieldwork will be undertaken with the free-ranging, habituated population of Southern Pied Babblers (SPB: Turdoides bicolor) at KRR. Fieldwork will include behavioural observations, morphological measurements, and physiological treatments, ensuring exposure to a range of techniques in ornithology.

Location: Kuruman River Reserve, Van Zylsrus, South African Kalahari

Duration: 3 months (90 days) between October 2016 and January 2017

Remuneration: approximately R6,000 per month. Accommodation at KRR and local travel is included. The research assistant is expected to cover their own food costs and transport to the field site.

Working conditions: 5.5 days per week. Fieldwork starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Temperatures can exceed 40°C. The location is remote, but accommodates many researchers and volunteers from around the world.

Tasks and Responsibilities

-          Perform behavioural observations of SPB across a range of daytime temperatures and group sizes. These observations will include focal animal observations and nest watches

-          Conduct stable isotope treatments with SPB across a range of daytime temperatures and group sizes. This will include taking body mass measurements and collecting faecal samples

-          Assisting the PhD student with accessing nests and handling nestlings for morphological measurements and ringing nestlings.

-          Collecting life history and nest life history data on Southern Pied Babbler groups and individuals and maintaining the various Pied Babbler Research Project databases.

Previous experience with bird ringing and/or avian physiology and/or field-based animal behaviour observations will be an advantage. Most important, however, is passion, motivation, and dedication to fieldwork.

To apply, please send your CV and a short motivation letter to Amanda Bourne

New papers making a splash!

Thermal image of a hot hornbill shows the beak radiating heat -- Photo credit tanja van de ven

Thermal image of a hot hornbill shows the beak radiating heat -- Photo credit tanja van de ven

Hot Birds team members have published two papers this month that are making a splash.

First, Prof Andrew McKechnie & the physiology team published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology on thermal tolerances of Burchell's Sandgrouse. Sandgrouse are often touted as "quintessential examples of avian adaptation to desert environments" but Andrew shows that their ability to keep cool in the heat is no match for that of desert doves and caprimulgids ...a shocking and unexpected finding! 

Second, PhD student Tanja van de Ven released the first publication from her thesis in PLoS ONE yesterday, about the ability of hornbills to use their beaks as controllable thermal radiators. Tanja used a nifty thermal imaging technique to show that hornbills are able to control the flow of blood to their oversize beaks to maximise cooling capacity when the going gets hot. Tanja's study has already attracted lots of media attention, check out these blog posts:

And a youtube video too:

Congratulations to all the co-authors and thanks to everyone who helped make these studies a reality. PDFs of the papers are available through our 'Publications' page.


New year & new beginnings...

2016 has gotten off to a great start for the Hot Birds Team, with several new students joining the programme at UCT and at UP, and a fantastic Hot Birds presence at the LAB -Learn About Birds conference organised by BirdLife South Africa in conjunction with the Percy FitzPatrick Institute, hosted at Skukuza Camp in the Kruger National Park.

New students:

We welcome Mpho Malematja and Ryno Kemp who have joined the Honours programme at UP and will be studying thermal physiology in mousebirds and ground woodpeckers, respectively, in Andrew McKechnie's lab.

We are also very excited to welcome a new PhD student to the UCT team - Amanda Bourne was the successful applicant for the PhD scholarship we advertised in late 2015. She will be working on whether cooperative behaviour can buffer costs of heat stress in social birds, using the Southern Pied Babbler as a model species. Amanda will be working in collaboration with Susie Cunningham and Claire Spottiswoode at the Fitz, and Mandy Ridley at UWA. Amanda has a strong background in climate change research from her previous work at Conservation South Africa. Read more about Amanda here

LAB in Skukuza:

The Hot Birds team was well represented at this year's LAB conference in Skukuza, with fully 8 oral presentations (~17% of the programme!) and 2 posters presented by our group. Our new logo made its debut at this conference and looked great on all the posters and talks.

Hot Birds attendees at the conference included Andrew McKechnie, Nick Pattinson, Ryan O'Connor, Michelle Thompson, Tanja van de Ven, Susie Cunningham, Jerry Molepo, Ben Smit, Mpho Malematja, Krista Oswald, Margaux Rat and Ryno Kemp. We all enjoyed spending time together, bouncing ideas around, drinking a few beers and seeing the Big Five in their natural habitat! 

Congratulations to Penny Pistorius

We have just learned that Penny Pistorius has earned a Distinction grade for her MSc thesis on the relationships between temperature and flight initiation distances in Kalahari birds. Well done Penny!! 

Penny has minimal changes to make to her thesis, after which we expect her to graduate with Distinction in June. We are all extremely proud of her.

-Susie Cunningham



Study opportunity: PhD research at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town

Project: Can sociality buffer the impacts of climate change? 

We invite applications for the above full-time research scholarship at the FitzPatrick Institute, a world-renowned, national Centre of Excellence (CoE) in ornithological research. The successful applicant will be an experienced fieldworker, and will test the relationship between sociality and climate change vulnerability using a highly social bird (the Southern Pied Babbler, Turdoides bicolor) as a model species. They will be supported and supervised by Dr Susie Cunningham (University of Cape Town), Assoc. Prof. Amanda Ridley (University of Western Australia), and Dr Claire Spottiswoode (University of Cape Town and University of Cambridge).

Climate change is increasing the frequency, intensity & duration of heat waves. Temperatures above critical thresholds affect fitness and population persistence of animals by forcing trade-offs between essential behaviours and heat stress mitigation. However, cooperation allows sharing of workloads across individuals (load-lightening) and may reduce the costs of time spent on thermoregulation. By observing a free-ranging, habituated population of Southern Pied Babblers in the Kalahari, this project will test whether cooperation can buffer the negative effects of environmental extremes. In the field, the successful candidate will test whether temperature and social group size affect (1) physiological costs of heat stress; (2) behavioural patterns; (3) within-year breeding success; and (4) long-term survival and reproductive success. The candidate will have the opportunity to contribute to research design.

 This project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between two ongoing research programmes: the Hot Birds Project (focusing on thermal biology and climate change impacts) and the Pied Babbler Project (focusing on sociality). For information on these projects please visit the following websites: and

Candidates should have a strong MSc or BSc Honours degree in an appropriate discipline; students with an honours degree would have to first register for an MSc but could upgrade to a PhD provided progress is satisfactory in the first year of study. A background in statistical analysis and experience in behavioural ecology or ecophysiology would be advantageous. However, it is most critical that the successful candidate be passionate, motivated and devoted to fieldwork.

 The value of the scholarship is R120 000 per year for up to three years for PhD. If beginning as an MSc, the first year will be R90 000. Renewal each year will be contingent on satisfactory academic progress. Adequate project running costs are available.

Click here to download the .pdf of this PhD study opportunity. 

 To apply, please send a CV (including your academic record & names and contact details of two referees) and a short motivation letter to Hilary Buchanan at (subject ‘your surname’ pied babbler PhD). Informal enquires can be directed to Dr Susie Cunningham or Prof. Amanda Ridley

 For more information on the FitzPatrick Institute visit

 Closing date: 10 January 2016 (possible interviews to be held in January)

UCT is committed to the pursuit of excellence, diversity and redress. Students granted a scholarship to study at UCT are required to comply with the UCT approved policies, procedures and practices for the postgraduate sector. UCT reserves the right to disqualify ineligible, incomplete and/or inappropriate applications, and reserves the right to change the conditions of award or to make no award at all.