Project highlights

  • Extensive experience of capture, handling, ringing and tagging an urban adapted bird species to track their movements through the city
  • Developing visualisation and analytical skills in processing of high resolution data from GPS tags to understand how birds move through cityscapes both in the UK and the USA
  • Working closely with one of the wildlife telemetry industry leaders to develop new tagging technologies and to communicate end-user requirements of tags

Overview

Cities are characterised by highly modified and complex habitats comprising a rich mosaic of greenspaces with wooded networks (Fig. 1) supporting diverse wildlife communities. Many ecological concepts (e.g. metapopulations, island biogeography, patch-matrix models) predict that species occurrence is a function of habitat location, quality, matrix structure and the presence of linking habitats (or corridors). Studies of linear features in cities have indicated the importance of tree networks for bat species (Hale et al. 2012) and juvenile birds in their post-natal dispersal (Rosenfeld 2013), but they have also shown that urban infrastructure can reduce movement across network gaps (Hale et al. 2015). Most studies, however, have not focused on the individual dispersal dynamics of the species themselves (LaPoint et al. 2015). This project levers the development of new GPS telemetric technology to address this shortcoming. In a world where human activity is reducing the average distances moved by animals by up to one third (Tucker et al. 2018), and urban landscapes are densifying due to development (Dallimer et al. 2011), more research is urgently required to understand the: (i) movements of organisms through the cityscape, and (ii) nature and permeability of the network and their relationships to gaps caused by urban development that might act as barriers to movement. The principal aim of this project is to assess the ecological significance of wooded city treescapes for avian biodiversity in urban areas.

The project involves the evolving collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) with whom the University of Birmingham has a strategic partnership. This project’s PI received BRIDGE Seed Funding in the 2020 round (i.e. carried over to 2021) to work with a research team in the USA that is already examining birds within urban habitats. The successful candidate for this CENTA project would work closely with the team from UIUC to develop research ideas, learn field techniques and contribute to the larger collaborative research project.

Host

University of Birmingham

Theme

  • Organisms and Ecosystems

Supervisors

Project investigator

Co-investigators

How to apply

Methodology

This PhD project is supported by equipment being developed by the EPSRC-funded Birmingham Urban Observatory project (https://birminghamurbanobservatory.com/) and the BRIDGE Seed Fund (see above). It will focus on common blackbirds (Turdus merula) breeding in greenspaces in Birmingham. The project tests the hypotheses that: (i) bird movement and habitat connectivity are enhanced by linked networks of woodland in the city, and (ii) gaps in networks caused by infrastructure such as transport routes, high density urban developments and urban infrastructure reduce network connectivity.

Birds will be captured by mist-netting in city treescapes and Pathtrack GPS tags will be used to investigate their movements at the landscape scale. The treescape network will be quantified by GIS analysis of remote sensing products. Statistical analysis will be carried out using the R statistical language to explore relationships between network form and type, analysis of gaps in the network and avian movements. Ultimately, models predicting avian movement patterns across the cityscape will be developed.

Training and skills

The project combines aspects of movement behavioural ecology, and spatial and network statistics. Training will be offered in each of these areas within the host and partner institutions. It will comprise postgraduate training and external training including using R for the analysis of complex spatial environmental datasets, and the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing data (e.g. LiDAR) to capture and depict variability of treescapes in Birmingham. The candidate will also be trained in bird handling by city ringers to obtain a British Trust for Ornithology ringing licence, and in the use of GPS technologies to track birds.

Partners and collaboration

The project has Pathtrack Ltd, the manufacturers of the GPS tags to be deployed on birds, as a CASE partner. They will host the student and work with them in developing new tag technologies as well as learning from them how high resolution spatial data from their tags are visualised, processed and analysed to answer research questions. Natural England have committed to being research partners on the project and will provide supervisory inputs to the project in overseeing project activities that meet objectives of Natural England’s Conservation 21 report entitled “Conservation Strategy for the 21st Century”.

Further details

Dr S. James Reynolds, Centre for Ornithology, School of Biosciences, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK ([email protected])

Professor Jon Sadler, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK ([email protected])

If you wish to apply to the project please visit: https://sits.bham.ac.uk/lpages/LES068.htm

Possible timeline

Year 1

Project development and DR training (e.g. statistics, bird handling). Data capture using remote sensing datasets (e.g. LiDAR and Sentinel 3) to characterise the urban treescape network, selection of field sites for the tracking work, field trial of tracking equipment.

Year 2

Paper writing. Fieldwork at Birmingham sites and visit to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for exchange of research ideas and experience of conducting similar fieldwork on a related project investigating an American thrush species. Conference attendance (national).

Year 3

Ongoing fieldwork, data analysis, modelling, and paper- and thesis-writing. Conference attendance (international).

Further reading

Dallimer, M., Tang, Z., Bibby, P. R., Brindley, P., Gaston, K. J., and  Davies, Z.G. (2011) Temporal changes in greenspace in a highly urbanized region. Biology Letters, 7, 763-766.

Hale, J. D., Fairbrass, A. J., Matthews, T. J., and Sadler, J. P. (2012) Habitat composition and connectivity predicts bat presence and activity at foraging sites in a large UK conurbation. PLoS ONE, 7(3), e33300.

Hale, J. D., Davies, G., Matthews, T., Fairbrass, A., and Sadler, J. P. (2015) The ecological impact of city lighting: exploring thresholds of functional habitat connectivity for urban bats. Global Change Biology, 21, 2467–2478.

LaPoint, S., Balkenhol, N., Hale, J., Sadler, J., and van der Ree, R. (2015) Ecological connectivity research in urban areas. Functional Ecology, 29, 868-878.

Rosenfeld, E. J. (2013) Assessing the ecological significance of linkage and connectivity for avian biodiversity in urban areas. PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK.

Tucker, M., Böhning-Gaese, K., Fagan, W., Fryxell, J. et al. (2018). Moving in the Anthropocene: Global reductions in terrestrial mammalian movements. Science, 359(6374), 466-469.

COVID-19

The main part of the project which is at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic is the potential to work with researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the USA with whom we will exchange ideas and provide experiences to UK and US teams of working with respective focal thrush species. However, all parts of the project can be undertaken entirely within the UK if international travel continues to be problematic. Short-term disruptions to fieldwork because of local or national lockdowns can be accommodated by flexibility in the project timeline. All project phases but capture of birds can be accommodated under lockdown(s).