Long-Distance Migratory Birds in Africa

Introduction

Great Reed Warbler

A Great Reed Warbler in Zambia, after it’s journey across the Sahara and a stop-over period in north-central Africa.

Many songbirds that breed in Europe migrate across the Sahara to spend the northern winter in tropical Africa, and many are known to be declining greatly in numbers globally. However, our understanding of their population growth and decline is limited by very sparse information on individual success during the non-breeding season in Africa. Dr Marjorie Sorensen studied the little-known African lives of Great Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) and Willow Warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus) in Zambia during her PhD research. Here are some of the questions she addressed:

How do conditions at migratory staging sites affect winter success? Recently, miniaturised-light level geolocators have allowed small bodied migratory birds to be tracked for the first time, and migratory patterns to and from Africa to be illuminated. Surprisingly, rather than direct flights to single winter sites the use of multiple long-term staging sites is common. Staged migration complicates our understanding of population dynamics and raises questions about whether conditions experienced during staging may carry over to affect long term success.

Marjorie worked with Dr Jason Newton (Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre), Dr Susanne Jenni-Eiermann (Swiss Ornithological Institute) and Dr Graham Fairhurst (University of Saskatchewan) to apply lab techniques in stable isotope, plasma metabolite, and stress hormone analysis to assess conditions experienced during staging and their possible consequences for winter success. Marjorie and team’s paper in BMC Ecology shows how environmental conditions at the Great Reed Warbler’s staging sites in the Horn of Africa appear to carry over to affect their condition at their final wintering site in Zambia.

Willow Warbler

A Willow Warbler radio-tagged by Marjorie Sorensen to establish whether despite its extravagant song, this species really is territorial on the non-breeding grounds in Africa. Read the answer here.

Why do migratory birds sing in winter?

Why do migratory birds sing in winter? High investment in expensive winter song is a puzzling behaviour for Palearctic-African migrants. Sixty-two percent of migratory songbird species sing on their wintering grounds in Africa, outside the context of breeding and mate attraction. While song quality during breeding is known to be important for overall fitness, the function of winter song has never been tested. Marjorie tested three competing hypothesis for winter song function: 1) the long-held territory defence hypothesis, that individuals sing for defence of winter feeding territories, 2) the testosterone hypothesis, that winter singing is a non-adaptive carry-over from elevated testosterone levels during breeding, and 3) the song improvement hypothesis, that winter singing functions to improve individual song quality and future reproductive success. Please see Marjorie’s papers on Willow Warblers (in Behavioural Ecology) and Great Reed Warblers (in The American Naturalist) singing in Africa, and these articles featuring her research in New Scientist, The AtlanticScience News and The Conversation; and listen to Marjorie discussing her work on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s science programme, Quirks & Quarks.

Does avian malaria have negative consequences for wintering birds?

Avian malaria effects on host population dynamics in wild birds are poorly understood. This is due, in part, to the majority of studies taking place on European breeding grounds where birds have already entered the chronic stage of infection. While some slight negative effects of chronic infection have been documented for host fitness in Europe, understanding the consequences of avian malaria requires sampling individuals in areas of active parasite transmission. Some species-specific strains are transmitted in Africa and Marjorie worked with Dr Staffan Bensch (Lund University) to determine the type and intensity of these infections. Wintering birds may be in the acute stage of infection; therefore, sampling individuals in Zambia can provide valuable information on the effects of malaria infection for host winter success, survival, and population dynamics. See Majorie’s papers in Journal of Avian Biology and Ecology and Evolution for her answers so far.

Our migratory bird publications from Zambia

  • Sorensen, M.C., Dixit, T., Newton, J., Kardynal, K., Hobson, K., Bensch, S., Jenni-Eiereman, S. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2019 Migration distance does not predict blood parasitism in a Palearctic-African migratory bird. Ecology and Evolution 9: 8294-8304. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Sorensen, M.C., Fairhurst, G.D., Jenni-Eiermann, D., Newton, J., Yohannes, E. & Spottiswoode, C.N. (2016) Seasonal rainfall at long-term migratory staging sites is associated with altered carry-over effects in a Palearctic-African migratory bird. BMC Ecology 16: 41. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Sorensen, M.C., Jenni-Eiermann, S. & Spottiswoode, C.N. (2016) Why do migratory birds sing on their tropical wintering grounds? American Naturalist187: E65–E76. Read on journal website
  • Sorensen, M.C., Asghar, M., Bensch, S., Fairhurst, G.D., Jenni-Eiermann, S. & Spottiswoode, C.N. (2016) A rare study from the wintering grounds provides insight into the costs of malaria infection for migratory birds. Journal of Avian Biology 57: 575–582. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • El-Arabany, N., Sorensen, M.C. & Hansson, B. (2015) Inferring the links between breeding and wintering grounds in a Palearctic-African migratory bird, the Great Reed Warbler, using mitochondrial DNA data. African Zoology 50: 241-248.
  • Sorensen, M.C. (2014) Singing in Africa: no evidence for a long supposed function of winter song in a migratory songbird. Behavioral Ecology 25: 909-915. Read on journal website [Open Access]

… and from elsewhere

  • Spottiswoode, C.N. & Saino, N. (2010) Sexual selection and climate change. In: Møller, A.P., Fiedler, W. & Berthold, P. (Eds) Effects of Climate Change on Birds. Oxford University Press.
  • Coppack, T., Tøttrup, A.P. & Spottiswoode, C. (2006) Degree of protandry reflects level of extrapair paternity in migratory songbirds. Journal of Ornithology 147: 260-265.
  • Spottiswoode, C.N., Tøttrup, A.P. & Coppack, T. (2006) Sexual selection predicts advancement of avian spring migration in response to climate change. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B 273: 3023-3029.
  • Spottiswoode, C. & Møller, A.P. (2004) Extra-pair paternity, migration and breeding synchrony in birds. Behavioral Ecology 15: 41-57.

News

Outreach for British Science Week at local Cambridgeshire school

During this year’s British Science Week, we’ve been engaging with local school children in Cambridgeshire. Mairenn Attwood led interactive talks at the Thomas Clarkson Academy in Wisbech,  a school partnered with ‘Teach First’ (a charity aimed at reducing educational inequality).

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New scientific paper on the “Limits to host colonization and speciation” published

Our paper “Limits to host colonization and speciation in a radiation of parasitic finches” has just been published in the journal Behavioral Ecology. In this study, led by Dr Gabriel Jamie, we explored the factors which limited the colonisation of new hosts by brood-parasitic Vidua finches. Speciation in these birds is closely connected with the colonisation of new hosts. Therefore, if we can understand what limits this process, we can understand what has limited the diversification of this radiation.

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Parasitic finches featured in new documentary “Attenborough’s Life in Colour” on BBC One

The amazing mimicry shown by nestling Pin-tailed Whydahs of their Common Waxbill hosts is showcased in David Attenborough’s Life in Colour the latest natural history documentary on BBC One. Filming of this sequence by Nick Green and Max Hug Williams of Humble Bee Films took place at our field site in Choma, Zambia, with Dr Gabriel Jamie acting as scientific consultant and contributing sound recordings.

You can watch the sequence in Episode 2: “Hiding in Colour” on BBC iPlayer.

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