Studying the Superb Starlings of Ol Pejeta

January 30, 2013  By: Gretchen

One of Kenya’s gems, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a great example of humans and animals sharing the land.  The conservancy is an important habitat for birds and animals, and one of the last places on earth that a visitor can see northern white rhino.  Our friends at the conservancey recently shared some of their avian work with us, and in turn we’d like to share it with you.

Visitors to Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, whether birdwatchers or not, will not fail to notice the brightly coloured superb starlings found in abundance here. These small but distinctive birds with metallic greens and blues on the chest, back and wings are endemic to northeast Africa and just one of the over 200 bird species found on Ol Pejeta.

On the Conservancy we realize that good wildlife management starts with good research. We were therefore pleased to welcome a group from the Zoology Department of the National Museums of Kenya (Dr. Muchane Muchai & Wanyoike Wamiti) and the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain (Dr. Vicente Polo & Dr. Pablo Veiga) conducting a comparative study on the natal dispersal of the co-operative breeder superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus) on Ol Pejeta and the solitary breeder spotless starlings (Sturnus unicolor) in central Spain. The study aims to investigate the factors influencing the dispersal of young starlings from where they are born and the tendency to return to their birthplace for reproduction.

In June 2012, during a reconnaissance trip meant to assess the suitability of the study on Ol Pejeta, over 50 superb starlings were identified and mapped. This was followed by a visit in July to test methods and identify study groups. It involved trapping both the young and adult superb starlings using mist nets. Once caught, the birds were fitted with radio transmitters. The transmitters are designed to be as light as possible – approximately 1gm, so that they do not unnecessarily burden the birds. The transmitter is glued onto the back feathers or on the central tail feathers. Birds molt after some time so the glue and transmitter fall off leaving no permanent mark on the bird. The lifespan of the transmitter is about two months.

a team of researchers on Ol Pejeta Superb starling on Ol Pejeta
A team of researchers using a hand-held antennae and receiver to track superb starlings on Ol Pejeta Conservancy
A superb starling fitted with a radio transmitter that will help monitor its dispersal patterns

The researchers then use a hand-held antennae and a receiver to track the birds in the field and determine if they disperse to new areas or return to their birthplace to breed. While fitting the transmitters, the researchers also looked for ecto-parasites on the birds. Ecto-parasites are an important indication of the health status of birds and let researchers know of possible diseases or suggest possible causes of any observed bird mortality.

In addition to fitting transmitters on superb starlings, the researchers are also ringing other birds caught in the mist nets. This involves putting a specially designed and uniquely marked aluminium ring on the tarsus (lower part of the bird’s leg). The purpose of ringing is to provide details of where the bird was caught and other specific details about the bird e.g. sex, weight, and other body measurements. Ringing is a very important method in studying migratory birds and survivorship studies. 135 individual birds, from 37 species, have been ringed so far.

This study will run for three years (2012-2014) and will not only provide detailed aspects of the reproductive behavioural biology of the starlings but also contribute to updating of Ol Pejeta’s bird checklist. So far 163 birds have been recorded by the researchers in just one month. Additionally, some of the Ol Pejeta staff members have been given presentations on various aspects of birding by the researchers and have even been inspired to form a bird watching club!

Photos and story courtesy Ol Pejeta Conservanc