Since 2003, Amanda Ridley has maintained a long-term study of habituated Southern Pied Babblers Turdoides bicolor, on the Kuruman River Reserve in the southern Kalahari Desert. Together with her collaborators, Amanda’s work explores the behavioural ecology of Pied Babblers, providing unique insight into the factors promoting conflict versus cooperation in group-living societies, life-history strategies and climate impacts. Recently, the research focus has broadened to include cognition, and more specifically, the relationship between cooperation, cognition, and climate.

The Pied Babbler Research Project investigates the costs and benefits of cooperation, and the effect of climate change impacts on this group-living species. Long-term life history data, along with short-term observations and experiments, have helped us understand the causes and consequences of cooperative breeding behaviour, as well as to determine influences on individual cognition. The study population size varies according to weather conditions, with the population decreasing when breeding seasons are hot and dry, and during very cold winters.

The range of questions that can be asked increases as the duration of the study grows, and we can now assess the factors influencing life-time fitness. Amanda Bourne has used the long-term database to understand the impact of heatwaves and drought on survival and reproductive success. She completed her PhD in 2021, and was very productive, with a number of high-profile papers published from her PhD chapters, including publications in Ecology Letters and Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B. We have also been investigating the impact of heat on cognitive ability, because cognition is vital to an individual’s ability to behaviourally respond to changes in their environment. Postdoctoral research fellow Camilla Soravia has been using thermal cameras and cognitive tasks to understand the effect of heat stress on cognition and why this matters, in terms of understanding how cognition impacts daily life for pied babblers. 

COVID-19 had a major impact on the babbler project. Due to travel restrictions, no researcher was able to visit the babbler study site during the summer of 2020-2021. This meant that nestlings were not ringed, habituation not conducted, and groups not monitored. This is the first time the babblers have not been monitored over the summer since the project began in 2003, and is a real blow to our long-term life history database, as well as to the current state of the population. We had several field assistants attend the site at the end of 2021, but only for brief periods, and without a qualified ringer to conduct ringing. The study population now contains a lot of unringed, unhabituated individuals. For the 2022/23 breeding season, we had two researchers and an assistant on site full-time once again, and the habituation and ringing status of the population is now improving.

Activities in 2022

  • PhD student Camilla Soravia completed her thesis. It has now been examined, and Camilla is now officially a Doctor! Camilla remains on the project as a postdoctoral research fellow, building on the findings of her PhD research.
  • A new PhD student has joined the research project. Emily Stott, originally from the UK but now based in Perth at the University of Western Australia (supervised by Amanda Ridley, Ben Ashton and Alex Thornton), began her research on the ontogeny of cognition in pied babblers for the 2022/2023 breeding season. 
  • New taxidermied predator models were purchased, with the hope that these serve as predator cues for the babblers, for predator risk experiments. A caracal was initially used but deemed too big: a revised predator model in terms of a taxidermied genet has been employed and seems to be more effective at eliciting antipredator responses in the pied babblers! 

Highlights:

  • The first cognition paper on the pied babblers was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. First-authored by Camilla Soravia, it showed that cognitive performance declines with age in females but not males. This appears to be a reproductive success-cognition trade-off. Interestingly, there was no group size effect on cognition, providing no support for the Social Intelligence Hypothesis in this species. 
  • A thermal imaging study on how to non-invasively quantify heat stress in wild birds was published in the Journal of Thermal Biology. This paper was first-authored by Camilla Soravia and analysed over 1 000 thermal images of pied babblers. 
  • The Routledge International Handbook of Comparative Psychology was published. This book was co-edited by Amanda Ridley and contains a chapter that details the long-term pied babbler research.
  • Pied babbler research was presented at several international conferences, including a talk by Camilla Soravia at the International Society for Behavioural Ecology in Sweden. 
  • The kidnapping data, which represented over ten years of pied babbler observations, was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, first-authored by Amanda Ridley, with theoretical modelling work courtesy of collaborator Prof Hanna Kokko.
  • Amanda Bourne published one of the final papers from her PhD, showing no sex-specific differences in the influence if air temperatures on nestling mass and survival in the pied babbler. This research was published in Ibis.
  • Amanda Ridley gave a plenary talk on the long-term pied babbler research at the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour meeting. 

Visit the Hot Bird Research Project page for more details on the collaborative work between the Pied Babbler Projectan d the Hot Birds Research Project, 

Key co-supporters
DSI-NRF CoE grant; Australian Research Council.

Research team 2022
A/Prof. Amanda Ridley (FIAO, UCT / UWA)
Dr Martha Nelson-Flower (Langara College)
Dr Camilla Soravia (UWA)
Dr Amanda Bourne (AWC)
A/Prof. Susie Cunningham (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Ben Ashton (UWA/MQ Uni)
Dr Alex Thornton (Exeter Uni)

Student: Emily Stott (PhD, UWA).