Ecology of migrant birds in Africa

Understanding the ecological requirements of migrant birds in Africa and the role land-use change may play in population declines

Turtle Dove, Senegal


Populations of long-distance migrant birds are declining across Europe, often at a faster rate than short-distance migrants and resident species.

Despite a wealth of work conducted on the breeding grounds, the causes of the declines are unknown for many of these species, suggesting a potential role for conditions on migration routes and wintering grounds. However, relatively little is known about the ecology of migrants outside of the breeding season.

We aim to increase our knowledge of migrants' wintering ecology through intensive field work in sub-Saharan Africa. Together with analysis of remote sensing data and work with local communities, we are working to enhance our understanding of the impact of land use change.


  • To understand the distribution and resource use of priority Afro-Palaearctic landbird migrants outside of the breeding season, at stopover sites and on their wintering grounds.
  • To assess the scale of habitat change in sub-Saharan West Africa and identify the drivers of land use change.
  • To understand the socioeconomic basis of land use change and develop ways of mitigating such change.

Key Dates

  • 2011-2016: Stopover and wintering ecology of wood warblers at three sites in Ghana and Burkina Faso
  • 2015-2017: Distribution and habitat use of European turtle doves in Senegal
  • 2012 - present: Broad scale distribution of wood warblers in relation to land use change
  • 2016-2017: Are European population trends of migrants related to land use and climate change in sub-Saharan Africa?     



  • Three years of intensive radio tracking, investigating tree selection and habitat use, completed at each of three wood warbler staging and wintering sites in Ghana and Burkina Faso. Playback surveys for wood warblers carried out in Ghana, Togo, Benin and Cameroon. 
  • Two seasons investigating the distribution and fine-scale habitat use, using remote-download GPS trackers, of European turtle doves in Senegal. 
  • Population trends of migrant birds across Europe related to land use and climate change, using remote sensing data. 
  • Transects set up through Shea parklands to measure impact of management interventions on migrant bird numbers.


Planned Work

  • The economics of conservation and land use change: PhDs: 2016-2019: "Political ecology of trees and birds in Ghana" (University of Cambridge). 2017-2020: "Cost-effectively conserving Afro-palaearctic migrants in West Africa" (University of Sheffield).                                    
  • 2017-2019: Trialling effect of management interventions in Shea (Vitellaria paradoxa) parklands


We have identified habitat characteristics and tree species important to wood warblers.

At the wintering site in Ghana, forest cover declined by 26 per cent between 2012 and 2014. Despite being a ‘forest’ species, numbers of wood warblers remained stable, as a result of use of non-forest wooded habitats. Analysis of remote sensing data suggested suitable forest habitats have declined by c.8 per cent across the species’ West African range, with >10 per cent loss in more western countries. 

Analysis has yet to start on turtle dove wintering ecology, but initial impressions from fieldwork has highlighted the importance of safe roosting sites, near to a source of water. Diet appears to vary as the winter progresses and different food sources become available. A particular species of grass, Panicum laetum, has been identified as heavily used by birds – interestingly, our colleagues in Burkina Faso have reported use of the same species.

Analysis of remote sensing data suggests that European trends of long-distance migrants are related to the timing and rate of senescence in West Africa. These are influenced, but not strongly driven, by climatic conditions. There is no evidence of a direct link between climate and bird trends, or greening and bird trends.


Coast on a stormy day

Dr John Mallord

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science
Tagged with: Country: Benin Country: Burkina Faso Country: Cameroon Country: Gambia Country: Ghana Country: Nigeria Country: Senegal Country: Togo Habitat: Farmland Habitat: Grassland Habitat: Woodland Species: Cuckoo Species: Nightingale Species: Pied flycatcher Species: Ring ouzel Species: Spotted flycatcher Species: Swift Species: Tree pipit Species: Turtle dove Species: Whinchat Species: Wood warbler Species: Yellow wagtail Project status: Ongoing Project types: Research