Nigel Hopper

University of Birmingham


Birds about Town – Delineating Magpie Movements and Activity Budgets Across an Urban Gradient


Dr S. James Reynolds, Centre for Ornithology, School of Biosciences, and Professors Jon Sadler and Lee Chapman, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, UK, and Dominic Goodwin, NatureCounters, Maidstone, Kent, UK

PhD Summary

Towns and cities present birds with a novel set of environments which they either adapt to, or move from, in order to survive. The urban landscape – in contrast to non-urban areas – is often characterised by frequent land use changes, thereby intensifying the selective pressure on avian urban colonisers. It is anticipated that urbanisation will increase in the coming decades, and it is therefore vital to enhance our understanding of its effects on birds, and of how avian species use the urban environment, in order to promote effective conservation through urban planning and design. Meta-analysis studies have indicated that urbanisation favours species with a genetic predisposition to innovation, species with broad ecological requirements (in terms of niche position), a plant-based diet, and that nest above the ground, and that the breeding success of species (measured variously according to different parameters in different studies) in urban areas is lower than that of species in non-urban areas. Such analyses tend to emphasise broad spatial scales using urban gradients and/or rural/urban comparisons as key analytical approaches for avian urban ecology research. Whilst such approaches are undoubtedly valuable and informative, the generalised nature of their findings may conceal finer-scale patterns of behaviour and ecology that have practical implications for conservation in terms of urban design, planning and management. Therefore, there remains an urgent need for replicable, autecological studies to determine how different avian species exploit the urban environment. This project will provide one such study, focussing on the Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica). Magpies are an excellent focal species having successfully colonised urban areas in the UK in the post-WWII period due to a combination of a reduction in game keeping activities, the banning of toxic agricultural chemicals, and extensive urban tree planting programmes. The UK magpie population is now in excess of 1 million birds and distributed widely. The location for this project will be Milton Keynes – one of the fastest growing urban centres in the UK, where magpies are a conspicuous and common species. This elegant study will determine the ‘secrets of magpies’ success’ in the urban environment of Milton Keynes, and the implications for other avian species, with similar cognitive and behavioural plasticities.

What inspires you

The theological conviction that a connectedness with the natural environment and a responsibility to sustain and care for it are intrinsic to what it means to be human. And birds!

Previous activity

Having completed undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in theology, I was ordained as a Baptist minister and spent five years leading a small church in East Anglia. From there, I moved into publishing – editing Bible-related resources for a Christian publishing house – and then into research and teaching on aspects of engaging Christianity and culture with The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC). Most recently, I worked for A Rocha UK as manager of their Eco Church programme – a national award scheme designed to motivate and resource churches to make caring for the natural environment an integral part of their community life.

Why did you choose doctoral research?

Having ‘taken a back seat’ in early adult life, my love of, and interest in birds was reawakened when my own children were young and eager to engage with the natural world. This led to a desire to re-train for a career in bird conservation. To this end, I undertook a part-time course of study at the University of Birmingham, graduating with an MSc in Ornithology (Distinction) in 2013. The MSc whetted my appetite for further ornithological research and training, and it became clear that a PhD would enhance my conservation career prospects greatly. So, I began exploring funded research opportunities.

Why did you choose CENTA?

The prospect of being able to undertake ‘cutting edge’ research supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, and being able to do so in a community context – including an industrial partner – with all the richness of expertise and resources that that brings.

Future plans

This programme of study will equip me with the essential knowledge, skills and expertise to take up a fulfilling and rewarding career in bird conservation – a role that will allow me to ‘give something back’ having benefitted from this amazing research opportunity.