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 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 several high-profile papers published from her PhD chapters, including ecological and behavioural publications in Ecology Letters and Proceedings of the Royal Society B and physiology papers in Functional Ecology and Conservation Physiology. She has also continued to produce papers into 2023. Her recent publication looked at how helper contributions to young declined during heat stress, but parent contributions did not. The Babbler team 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.

Camilla Soravia’s PhD research has been completed and has shown that heat stress impairs some, but not all cognitive abilities in babblers. The decline in associative learning ability in the heat is of concern, because identifying the relationship between a cue and a threat is often how animals recognise competitors and predators. Camilla also found that cognitive ability declines with age in females, but not males – presumably due to the higher costs of reproduction in females. She also found that heat stress experienced during the early developmental period can have lifelong impacts, affecting reproductive success and cognition in adults.

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 2023

  • Camilla Soravia remains on the project as a Postdoctoral Research fellow for a second year. Her research questions will be completed in 2024.
  • Emily Stott completed a second field season at the study site, focussing on the ontogeny of cognition for her PhD research.
  • New Raspberry Pi nest cameras were installed.
  • Two new field assistants joined the research project. 


  • A paper co-authored by several Babbler Project team members and FitzPatrick Institute affiliates was published, looking at the camelthorn tree as a keystone species of vital importance for pied babblers. This was published in Ibis, first-authored by Kim Hunt.
  • Our research on the impact of high temperatures during early development on adult cognition and reproductive success was published in Science of the Total Environment, first-authored by Camilla Soravia.
  • Our research on the impact of heat stress on adult cognition was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, first-authored by Camilla Soravia.
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society B published a blog post about our research described above. The blog is here: blog/2023/11/southern-pied-babbler-proc-b/
  • Our research on the difference in declines in investment in young during heat stress between parents and helpers was published in Behavioural Ecology, first-authored by Amanda Bourne.
  • Our research on evidence for vocal discrimination between familiar and unfamiliar kin and non-kin was published in Animal Behaviour, first-authored by David Humphries.
  • Pied babbler research was presented at several international conferences, including a talk by Camilla Soravia at the International Society for Behavioural Ecology in Sweden.
  • Amanda Ridley featured on several news, tv and documentary features talking about the principles of bird research.
  • A film crew came out to the study site to film pied babbler behaviours, in particular the blackmailing behaviour by fledglings that we published on about a decade ago. A National Geographic film crew are coming out in 2024 to investigate filming possibilities with the babblers

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

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

Research team 2023
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/Maquarie)
Dr Alex Thornton (U. Exeter)

Student: Emily Stott (PhD, UWA).