Home Sci-TechEnvironment South African Birds-Cum-Weight-Watchers Lark About in Climate Change Study

South African Birds-Cum-Weight-Watchers Lark About in Climate Change Study

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A team of scientists has trained larks in South Africa to hop onto an electronic scale and weigh themselves as part of a new study into the effects climate change is having on the species.

It took two months of extremely difficult and time-consuming work to get eight Red Larks (four males and four females) used to humans and weighing scales, said Ryno Kemp, lead researcher and author of the study.

But in the end “a nice juicy worm did the trick,” Kemp told RFI.

The Red Lark (Calendulauda burra) is a shy, elusive bird found only in South Africa’s arid Northern Cape region. It has a streaked breast and reddish brown wings and back that match the red sand dunes of the scrubby, thorn-studded terrain in which it lives.

The study, carried out in the Black Mountain Mine Conservation Area, south of the town of Aggeneys from 2017-2019, saw Kemp and members of his team spending weeks getting first within five metres of individual birds, then two metres, and then coaxing the birds to accept a worm.

A food reward

Every time a lark took a worm, its human benefactor would whistle so that the lark associated “a food reward with an auditory cue,” explained Kemp, a University of Pretoria zoologist.

Once the larks got used to receiving worms as rewards, a whistle was used to attract them to an electronic scale placed on the ground between tussocks of grass, with worms scattered around it. Eventually smaller worms were placed on top of the scale, and finally on a tiny wooden platform in front of the device, so that the birds were encouraged to stand in the middle of the weighing surface.

A video camera placed beside the scale recorded the reading.

Kemp is a member of the (Hot Birds Research Project HBRP), a network of local and international researchers studying the effects of climate change on birds living in arid areas: places that will bear the brunt of global warming.

Getting birds to co-operate in research has been used before in South Africa. In 2012, another team that was part of the HBRP taught Pied Babblers to weigh themselves. Pied Babblers are another species that lives in dry regions of southern Africa.

Loss of body mass

But while it took years to habituate those starling-sized birds to electronic scales, Kemp and his team took just weeks to get the Red Larks used to them by spending time each day with individual birds.

Their findings, published in Emu – Austral Ornithology, show that male Red Larks lose up to five percent of their body mass over a 24-hour period when temperatures reach 40 degrees centigrade.