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Birds have mastered the art of coexisting in a changing world

Birds may hold the key to understanding coexistence in a world that is increasingly impacted by climate change and habitat destruction. A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B sheds light this mystery.

A team of scientists from Michigan State University embarked on an ambitious journey into the vast expanse of the Albertine Rift ecosystem region in east-central Africa. The study was led by Sam Ayebare, a PhD candidate from Uganda.

Biodiversity hotspot 

This biodiversity hotspot boasts a richer avian population than any other part of the African continent, a fact that Ayebare vividly describes as a “teeming feathered metropolis.”

To truly grasp the art of coexistence, Ayebare emphasizes the necessity of understanding the dynamics of their habitats. 

Focus of the study

“We want to understand how species – in this case birds – coexist without driving each other to extinction,” said Ayebare. “To protect a species, you must first understand where they are and why.”

Historically, the understanding of spatial usage by creatures – whether avian, mammalian, or insectoid – depended on small-scale, often controlled, experiments. Yet, Ayebare and his team recognized that the real story lay hidden in raw data.

How the research was conducted 

The researchers analyzed data collected from 519 carefully chosen sampling sites across the Albertine Rift’s montane forests. The sites covered vast elevational and environmental gradients, recording the presence of birds either visually or aurally. This painstaking effort led to the cataloging of over 6,000 individual birds spanning 129 species.

But this was just the beginning. Integrating these observations with myriad data points on temperature, rainfall, dietary preferences, forest canopy usage, and more, the team discovered the birds’ intricate survival strategies.

Mitigating biodiversity loss

Elise Zipkin, an associate professor of integrative biology at MSU and the head of the Quantitative Ecology Lab, speaks of the broader mission. Their goal, she says, is not just to unravel nature’s mysteries, but also to “understand and predict how and why nature is changing, and what can be done to mitigate biodiversity loss.” 

“We’re interested in the circumstances that allow biodiversity to flourish – what makes species coexistence possible?” Zipkin said. “There’s is a lot of pressure on biodiversity in the modern age. It helps to understand what types of conditions, at very small to very large scales, can facilitate the protection of species.”

Zipkin reflects on the immense pressure biodiversity faces today, emphasizing the importance of understanding the myriad conditions that can foster species protection.

What the researchers learned 

The team found that birds adjust their habitat usage based on environmental factors like temperature, precipitation, and types of forest vegetation. 

Furthermore, even within these optimal habitats, birds with similar ecological profiles delineate territories, with some preferring the lofty heights of the canopy, while others choose the forest’s lower strata.

“Species have organized themselves over millions of years,” said Ayebare. “We want to develop ways to figure out what they will do next to survive.” His deep-rooted connection to the region was instrumental in guiding the research, as Zipkin highlights Ayebare’s innate ability to pose the most pertinent questions regarding avian coexistence in the Albertine rift.

The research was made possible through the support of several institutions, including the National Science Foundation, WCS Graduate Scholarship Program, Beinecke African Conservation Scholarship, and World Wildlife Foundation’s Russell E. Train Education for Nature Program.

Birds of the Albertine Rift ecosystem region

The Albertine Rift ecosystem region, located in east-central Africa, is one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots. This verdant stretch, comprising parts of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania, is home to a great number of bird species.

The unique combination of geological, climate, and ecological factors in the region has resulted in a rich tapestry of avian life that has fascinated ornithologists and bird enthusiasts alike.


The Albertine Rift is home to over 500 bird species, of which around 40 are endemic, meaning they’re found nowhere else in the world. The region thus hosts one of the highest densities of endemic bird species on the African continent.

Iconic species

Grauer’s Rush Warbler

A small, elusive bird that thrives in the marshes and swamps of the region.

Albertine Owlet

A rare nocturnal bird with striking plumage, found mainly in the montane forests.

Shelley’s Crimsonwing

This vividly colored finch is one of the world’s most elusive bird species.

African Green Broadbill

With its vibrant green plumage, this bird is a sought-after sighting for birdwatchers.


The diverse habitats, ranging from montane rainforests, grasslands, wetlands, to alpine zones, contribute to the rich bird diversity. The altitude gradient, in particular, has resulted in specialized niches for many bird species.

Conservation challenges

The region, despite its rich biodiversity, faces several challenges. Deforestation, agricultural expansion, mining, and human settlements threaten the delicate balance of the Albertine Rift’s ecosystems. Many bird species, already limited to this region, face the dangers of habitat loss and fragmentation.

Conservation efforts

Several national parks and protected areas have been established within the Albertine Rift to preserve its unique biodiversity. These include Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Virunga National Park, and Rwenzori Mountains National Park, among others. Local communities, international organizations, and governments collaborate in efforts to protect and restore the ecosystems.


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