Associate Professor Robert Thomson

Associate Professor

PhD (Oulu, Finland)

John Day Building: 2.06

Activities and research interests

Robert has a broad interest in bird ecology, but is especially interested in between-species interactions. He comes from Pretoria, and grew up birding and ringing in the bushveld areas. He did his undergraduate studies at the University of Pretoria, studying mixed species bird flocks for his BSc Hons. These studies led to him being a field assistant in northern Finland. This stint became his MSc thesis at the University of Oulu, which tested the heterospecific attraction hypothesis that migrant songbirds attract to resident songbirds during their habitat selection decisions. He continued with his PhD in Oulu, further investigating the positive associations in Boreal bird communities, but incorporating the interplay of negative, predation and competition, interactions. He defended his thesis in 2006, and moved to southern Finland to take up a post-doc position at the University of Turku investigating various aspects of raptors and their impact on songbird community structure.

During the avian influenza (AI) crises in 2007, Robert led AI surveillance efforts in Cambodia for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and assisted with surveillance work in Mongolia. He then returned to Finland where he held a series of research fellowships investigating avian habitat selection decisions in the face of ‘enemies’ and the life history of endangered wader populations in the Bothnian bay.

In addition to these ongoing projects, Robert has initiated three new research projects in the last few years that use unique study systems to answer questions of interest. He has been working on:

  • The importance of Sociable Weaver colonies in the Kalahari and their use by other avian species and other taxa. Investigating how these communities and their interactions change at weaver nests across aridity gradients. This work has also focused on the African Pygmy Falcon, an obligate user of these weaver nests, and their life history and interactions with their weaver hosts.
  • Understanding front-line defences in brood parasite – host interactions. For these studies he is using the redstart-common cuckoo system, unique because the redstart is the only known cavity nesting host of the common cuckoo, that present interesting challenges for the cuckoo.
  • An applied project to understand the role of farmers in vulture conservation in southern Africa. Taking interdisciplinary approaches to understand the factors that affect the use of poison by farmers and human-wildlife conflicts. And focusing on the role that supplementary feeding efforts by farmers can play, and assessing the services that vultures may provide in terms of carcass.

Recent peer-reviewed publications
For a full list of Robert's publications, go to Google Scholar.

Current students


Teresa Abaurrea: Parent offspring coadaptation without parental care: cuckoos vs redstarts. University of Helsinki. (Main supervisor: Rose Thorogood)

Selena Flores: The effects of anthropogenic disturbance of beaches on breeding shorebirds in the high-tourism Garden Route region of South Africa. (Co-supervisor: Peter Ryan)

Olufemi Olubodun: Life-history and population dynamics of the African Pygmy Falcons - an obligate associative species of Sociable Weaver nests.

Jessleena Suri: Understanding the influence of urban landscape structure on biodiversity in South African cities. (Main supervisor: Res Altwegg, co-supervisor: Pippin Anderson)

Masters (dissertation):

Temitope Rebecca Abisoye: Understanding the ecology of Pied Crow and their potential impacts on biodiversity in arid areas of South Africa (Co-supervisor: Arjun Amar)

Sthabile Khumalo: Stress responses of Sociable Weavers to the presence of Pygmy Falcons on weaver colonies (Supervisor: Celiwe Ngcamphalala, co-supervisor: Robert Thomson)

Graduated students (UCT)


Timothy Khan Aikins: The costs and benefits of hosting colonial sociable weaver nests for arid zone savanna trees. (Co-supervisor: Michael Cramer)
Angela Moreras (2023) Frontline strategies in the arms-race between hosts and their brood parasites: the case of the common redstart and the common cuckoo (Co-supervisor: Jere Tolvanen)
Christiaan Brink (2021) Investigating the viability and potential impact of vulture restaurants as a strategy to conserve South Africa's plummeting vulture populations. (Co-supervisors: Arjun Amar, Andrea Santangeli)
Anthony Lowney (2020) Weaver nests as a resource to Kalahari animals: positive associations in the structure and function of a community in a stressful environment.
Kate Carstens (2017) Nest boxes as a conservation tool for the Southern Ground Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri. (Main supervisor: Peter Ryan, co-supervisor: Rob Little)

Masters (Dissertation)
Sanjo Rose (2023) Breeding ecology, habitat use and threats to the Agulhas Long-billed Lark Certilauda brevirostris in the Overberg Region of South Africa.(Co-supervisors: Peter Ryan, Alan Lee)
Andrew de Blocq van Scheltinga (2017) Assessing the impacts of boat-based tourism on waterbirds at De Hoop Vlei. (Co-supervisor: Peter Ryan)

Masters (Conservation Biology)
Joseph Sekyanzi (2022) In-depth analysis of poisoning and belief-based use as main threats to vultures in pastoral areas of Southern Kenya. (Co-supervisor Andrea Santangeli)
Tapiwa Zimunya: (2018) Vulture restaurants and their influence on the demography of vultures in Southern Africa. (Co-supervisor: Arjun Amar)
Christie Craig (2017) An assessment of the anthropogenic threats to vultures in the communal farmlands of Namibia. (Co-supervisor: Andrea Santangeli)
Carles Dura (2017) Quantifying the level of predation on tortoises by pied crows in south western South Africa. (Main supervisor: Arjun Amar)
Angela Ferguson (2016) Using conditioned food aversion to reduce Pied Crow predation of plover nests. (Co-supervisor: Tom Flower)

Rebecca Irons (2022) Generalised additive models to analyse primary wing moult patterns.
Daniel Russouw (2022) Sleeping with te enemy: Is Sociable Weaver roosting behaviour impacted by Pygmy Falcon predation risk?
Justin Jacobs (2019) Determinants of cavity nest prospecting by a brood parasite. (Co-supervisor: Diana Bolopo)
Jess Lund (2018) Thermoregulation in free-ranging Pygmy Falcon (Polihierax semitorquatus). (Co-supervisors: Andrew McKechnie and Diana Bolopo)
Billi Krochuk (2017) Investigating the unique defaecation behaviour of Pygmy Falcons: benefit or by-product? (Co-supervisors: Claire Spottiswoode and Diana Bolopo)
Eleanor Weideman (2017) Responses of avian phylogenetic diversity to land use change. (Co-supervisors: Bernard Coetzee and Jasper Slingsby)
Kervin Prayag (2016) Do camelthorn trees use Sociable Weavers to forage for nutrients? (Co-supervisor: Mike Cramer)
Carla du Toit (2016) Colonial birds engineer islands of fertility in an arid savanna. (Co-supervisor: Mike Cramer)

Graduated from other Universities

Jere Tolvanen (2018) Ecological consequences and heritability of social information use in animals. University of Oulu, Finland (Co-supervisors: Jukka Forsman (Oulu), Veli-Matti Pakanen (Oulu))
Chiara Morosinotto (2012) Predator-prey interactions in forest bird communities: effects of avian predators on habitat selection, reproductive success and anti-predator behaviours. University of Turku,
Finland (Main supervisor: Prof. Erkki Korpimäki).
Pälvi Salo (2009) On lethal and nonlethal impacts of native, alien and intraguild predators - evidence of top-down control. University of Turku, Finland (Main supervisor: Prof. Erkki Korpimäki).

Masters (Dissertation)
Mira Sassi (2019) Nest defence behaviour in a Common cuckoo host. University of Oulu.  (Co-supervisor: Jere Tolvanen)
Selengemurun Dembereldagva (2014) Migration and wintering areas of waterfowl linked to avian influenza outbreaks in Mongolia. Mongolian State University of Agriculture, Mongolia. (Co-supervisor: Dr Khukhuu)
Chhin Sophea (2011) A Comparison of Bird Communities in Disturbed and Pristine Forest in Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, Southwest Cambodia. Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Co-supervisor: Howie Nielson)

Bongani Prince Ngomane (2017) A comparison of species richness and diversity of sub-canopy communities between trees with and without Sociable Weaver colonies. Tshwane University of Technology (Main supervisor: Willem Mybergh)

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