Project Highlights:

  • This is first project aimed at assessing the influence of varying thermal regimes in cities on urban wildlife to test the Cold Adaptation Hypothesis.
  • The project is highly interdisciplinary using a range of innovative field experimentation and empirical techniques to understand the metabolic strategies and ecological energetics of urban birds
  • The project provides a strong education outreach opportunity with local schools which will enhance the science curriculum.

The world is urbanising rapidly with over half of the global human population now living in urban centres. Urbanisation is inevitably accompanied by habitat change but it also results in thermal phenomena, such as the urban heat  island (UHI) effect (Fig. 1), that  can have profound  impacts on human as well as non-human populations. Lessons can be learnt rapidly from urban wildlife as to how they adapt to this rapidly changing environment. This project will test the Cold Adaptation Hypothesis that proposes that in endotherms temperature extremes may be a potent (and previously poorly considered) driver of metabolic strategies (and capacities) of individuals. The project will investigate the ecological energetics of species in the city to study how they meet the energetic demands of urban life under different thermal regimes. The project will use the pre-existing network of weather stations all over the city (via GEES’ Birmingham Urban Climate Lab) to monitor how changes in the city’s ambient temperature shape the activity budgets (and thus the life history) of urban birds. The project will combine many established methodologies to quantify temperature extremes, food availability and use, breeding performance, habitat use and survival of birds across the urban gradient. It is strongly inter-disciplinary involving training that incorporates substantial components of fieldwork, laboratory-based analyses and outreach through Citizen Science. We will work closely with Twootz.com Ltd who will supply food and feeders for the supplementary feeding part of the study while we will also work with the wildlife telemetry industry to employ modern tracking technologies to study movements of birds in the city.

Birmingham’s urban heat island as of 18th July 2006. (Source: Birmingham City Council 2012).


We will test the hypothesis that urban birds respond to ambient temperature through changes in their activity budgets and thus their energetic investment. To do so, we will provide food to birds at feeders at schools where weather stations monitor local temperatures, and catch and ring birds visiting feeders to examine their: (a) feeding rates at school feeders using Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags; (b) metabolic rates using Doubly-labelled Water (DLW); (c) activity budgets using GPS tags; (d) diet using Stable Isotope Analysis (SIA); (e) breeding performance; and (f) survival using ringing-re-trapping approaches. Our partners at Twootz.com Ltd will not only provide food for feeders in Birmingham schools but they will also promote the research through their web presence. Our wildlife telemetry partners will provide access to ‘state-of-the-art’ GPS units that can be deployed on most garden bird species.

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to the student's projects and themes. 

The proposed project has a strong multidisciplinary component, combining aspects of avian ecology, behavioural ecology, energetics, spatial statistics and educational outreach. Thus, subject-specific training will be offered in each of these areas. It will comprise a mix of appropriate postgraduate level training and external training courses. The former will include biostatistical training in analysis of spatial data and complex normal and non-normal datasets and the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in elucidating pattern and process in habitats across an urban gradient. Examples of the latter will include Home Office-accredited training in aspects of animal work, including the ethical considerations.


Year 1: Project development and DR training (e.g. statistics, modelling, bird handling) leading to the first field season in Birmingham working on nestboxes and at feeders in schools throughout the city. This will expose the candidate to various ways to measure avian activity budgets and to educating schoolchildren about science and its potential to answer applied questions about urbanisation.

Year 2: Secondment to CASE partners to: (1) learn more about bird feeding industry and to demonstrate important roles that scientific outputs can play in developing bird foods and informing the feeding public; and (2) work closely with engineers to develop GPS units that can be deployed over extensive periods to monitor activities of urban birds.

Year 3: Data analysis, fieldwork, conference attendance to showcase research outputs, paper- and thesis-writing.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The project involves CASE partners with Twootz.com Ltd providing bird food and a wildlife telemetry company providing the in-house expertise for development and deployment of GPS tags on small passerines. We envisage that between them the CASE partners will provide expertise to inform the candidate about access to food products that best supplement the diets of target species, and to the best telemetric equipment, respectively. The candidate will spend up to 3 months working with both partners and by doing so will learn about two thriving UK research and marketing sectors.

Further Details

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For further details, please contact Dr S. James Reynolds at Centre for Ornithology, School of Biosciences, and Prof. Jon P. Sadler & Prof. Lee Chapman at the School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK. Emails: J.Reynolds@bham.ac.uk, J.P.Sadler@bham.ac.uk & L.Chapman@bham.ac.uk.