The Birds

Brood-parasitic study systems

In Zambia we study four different groups of brood parasitic birds and their hosts, as well as some interesting non-parasitic birds, too.

Cuckoo Finch egg circle

Cuckoo Finches

Cuckoo Finches Anomalospiza imberbis are brood parasitic finches that exploit various species of warblers as their hosts. They have evolved beautiful mimicry not only of their different host species, but also of different host colour and patterns, or ‘forgeries’ to their hosts’ egg ‘signatures’.
Read more here…

Honeyguide

Greater and Lesser Honeyguides

Honeyguides are intriguingly bizarre birds with respect to most aspects of their lives. They guide humans to bees’ nests, are unusually brutal brood parasites of other birds and, it turns out, have a remarkably ancient history of specialisation on their particular host species.
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African Cuckoo

African and Diederik Cuckoos

African Cuckoo eggs are probably the very best forgeries of any brood parasitic egg in the world. They can so closely resemble those of their hosts that neither we nor the hosts can tell them apart.
Read more here…

Indigobird

Vidua Finches: Whydahs and Indigobirds

Vidua finches, the indigobirds and whydahs, belong to the same family as Cuckoo Finches but have a fascinatingly different brood parasitic system involving beautiful mimicry of their host chicks’ bizarrely pattern mouthparts.
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Other interesting things we study in Choma

Great Reed Warbler

Migratory Birds

Marjorie Sorensen carried out her PhD research on the intriguing and little-known winter ecology of Palearctic-breeding migratory birds (Willow Warblers and Great Reed Warblers) that spend the non-breeding season in Zambia.
Read more here…

FN Nightjar

Nest Camouflage

We study camouflage and thermal ecology of eggs, chicks and incubating adults of ground-nesting birds in Choma: nightjars, coursers and plovers.
Read more here…

News

Evolutionary Biology Crash Course

Tanmay Dixit was a member of a team organising and lecturing in the inaugural Evolutionary Biology Crash Course. This course, aimed at undergraduate or early-postgraduate students, teaches evolutionary principles to students who have had limited opportunities to be exposed to evolutionary ideas. The course is funded by the Equal Opportunities Initiative Fund of the European Society of Evolutionary Biology (ESEB). Tanmay presented lectures on behavioural ecology and evolution, focussing on kin selection, coevolution, and parasitism. Over 700 students, with the vast majority from the global South, attended the course, which was a resounding success!

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New paper on visual complexity & mimicry

Our paper “Visual complexity of egg patterns predicts egg rejection according to Weber’s Law” has just been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. This research was led by Tanmay Dixit, and carried out together with Andrei Apostol, Kuan-Chi Chen, Tony Fulford, Chris Town and Claire Spottiswoode, in a collaboration between biologists and computer scientists. We used machine learning to compute a biologically-relevant measure of egg pattern complexity, and combined this with field experiments in Zambia to investigate how complexity evolves in an arms race between host egg signatures (by tawny-flanked prinias) and parasitic egg forgeries (by cuckoo finches).

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Fieldwork and teaching at APLORI, Nigeria

Dr Gabriel Jamie is continuing his fieldwork on the evolution of polymorphisms in cisticolas and prinias in Nigeria, where he is also a teaching fellow at the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI). The image shows the 2022 APLORI MSc class during the Global Birding Big Day on 14 May. The team recorded 135 species while walking around the nature reserve surrounding the institute.

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New paper on the genetics of cuckoo finch egg mimicry

Our paper “Genetic architecture facilitates then constrains adaptation in a host-parasite coevolutionary arms race” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. In it, we address the long-standing puzzle of how exquisite mimicry of the eggs of several different host species can evolve within a single species of brood-parasitic bird. We show that in cuckoo finches in Zambia, egg mimicry of different host egg phenotypes is maternally inherited, which allows mothers to transmit host-specific adaptations to their daughters irrespective of which host species the father was raised by. This study was a team effort from colleagues at the University of Cambridge and University of Cape Town (Claire Spottiswoode, Wenfei Tong, Gabriel Jamie), at Boston University (Katherine Stryjewski, Jeff DaCosta, Evan Kuras and Michael Sorenson) and in the Choma community in Zambia (Ailsa Green, Silky Hamama, Ian Taylor and Collins Moya).

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