Bird Division African Research and Collaborations

© Josh Engel
The parasitic worms of White-spotted Flufftail (Sarothrura pulchra) were the subject of a recent paper by African Birds collaborators. See the 22 June news item for more information.

LATEST NEWS (Click here for older news items.)

22 June 2015: African Birds collaborators have recently published two papers about avian parasites using samples collected on Field Museum expeditions to Africa. In one paper (Hildebrand et al. 2015), Vasyl Tkach and Eric Pulis, two of our colleagues who have accompanied the African Birds team in Africa, along with their colleague Joanna Hildebrand, "redescribed" an endoparasitic trematode flatworm from the gall bladder of White-spotted Flufftail (Sarothrura pulchra). We caught the bird in Kibale National Park, Uganda, in 2013. The original description of the parasite, Lyperosomum sarothrurae, was incomplete, so the authors improved the description and included molecular data in assigning it to genus.

The second paper (Klimov et al. 2015) is about ectoparasites, dust mites in particular, by a group of scientists from Russia and the University of Michigan. They studied the relationships of a group of mites using a multi-locus molecular phylogeny as well as a morphological analysis. Understanding the relationships of this group is particularly important because of its connection to human health--it includes the main genus of allergy-inducing mites. The paper used mites collected from three Field Museum specimens that were collected in 2009 in Malawi.

Full citations for both papers can be found on the Publications page.

10 June 2015: We've added a recent publication by our colleagues at CRSN-Lwiro, comparing the plant diversity around the field station at Lwiro with two sites on Idjwi Island in Lake Kivu. Led by Melchi Kazadi Mizangi, the authors pay particular attention to oilseed bearing plants, which have potential economic value. The field work upon which this paper is based was done during the Macarthur Foundation-funded P-BEATRA training program, a collaboration between two Congolese research stations (CRSN-Lwiro and CRH-Uvira), the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), and the Field Museum. This and many other publications can be found on our Publications page.

1 June 2015: Some of the genetic work we have done in recent years includes using microsatellites--repeated elements of DNA in the genome--to help understand population genetics of African birds. A group of scientists from Roosevelt University and the Field Museum recently published a short paper characterizing such loci in Buff-spotted Woodpecker (Campethera nivosa), a common woodpecker of lowland tropical forests across the central part of the continent. The study was part of the master's thesis of Nausheen Khan, whose adviser, Norbert Cordeiro, is a professor at Roosevelt and a research associate at the Field Museum. Other Field Museum participants on this project are research assistant Kellie Murdoch, birds collections manager Ben Marks, and Kevin Feldheim, manager of the Pritzker DNA Lab.

30 April 2015: A paper a long time in the making, we have recently published a study about haemosporidian blood parasites in bird samples collected on a 2009 Field Museum expedition to Malawi. The first author of the paper, published earlier this month in PLOS ONE, is Holly Lutz, who led a team of scientists from The Field Museum, the University of North Dakota, and Cornell University. A summary of the paper can be found on Josh Engel's blog and the entire paper is freely available at PLOS ONE.

13 March 2015: We just had a team of collaborators emerge from the forests of the Imatong Mountains in South Sudan, where they were studying birds and mammals of these poorly-known mountains. There are several subspecies of birds that are endemic here, and we look forward to examining their genetics to see how much they differ from other populations. As far as we know, the last time ornithologists visited these mountains was on a Field Museum expedition in 1977.

30 December 2014: We recently published a paper in Ornithological Observations, a wonderful online journal with a self-explanatory title that is produced by the Animal Demography Unit of the University of Cape Town and BirdLife South Africa. It's a great place to find short natural history related papers about African birds. The Field Museum's Josh Engel just had a paper published about observations of visible migration of birds that he made on museum expeditions to Congo and Uganda. You can find the paper here.

16 December 2014: The Field Museum's African programs have had a long and productive relationship with the Irene D. Pritzker Foundation, with a five-year grant from that foundation coming to an end with the end of the year. Funding from IDP has gone to a variety of projects in Africa and by African scientists and students, some of which we have featured here. They have highlighted this collaboration recently on their blog. We at African Birds hope for a continuing relationship with the IDP Foundation, especially since we've seen first-hand how this money has helped African students and scientists and furthered science and conservation in Africa.

11 December 2014: Last night was the Field Museum's Council on Africa's end-of-year dinner and meeting. The "Africa Council," as we call it, is a group of museum devotees who are particularly loyal in their support of our research and training programs in Africa. Curator John Bates gave a talk summarizing some of the people and work that the African Council has supported over the years--it was a very impressive assortment of people and projects! Since its inception, the African Council has contributed over $400,000 to a wide variety of projects, including bringing African scientists, students, and museum technicians to Chicago, bringing Field Museum scientists to Africa, and sponsoring lab work and other research on samples from Africa. We at the museum owe them a huge debt of gratitude--so thanks to the Africa Council!

14 October 2014: We have uploaded the master's thesis abstract of Wanyoike Wamiti. See the news item from 19 August for more. He studied the ectoparasite loads of Speckled Mousebirds (Colius striatus) and Red-capped Larks (Calandrella cinerea) in different habitats in Kenya. Mousbirds have a lot of lice!

9 October 2014: Early in 2014, Curator John Bates was contacted by a man named Daniel Parelius. A retired postal carrier and child of missionaries, Dan had spent much of his high school years in the Ivory Coast. An interest in birds led him to contact then-curator Mel Traylor about collecting birds for the Field Museum. Mel responded with an enthusiastic "Yes, please!," an agreement was made to pay Dan $1.50 for each specimen, and several years later the Field Museum contained the entire Parelius collection, nearly 2,000 birds collected over 6 years in the Ivory Coast.

When Dan wrote John, his basic question was "Has anybody done anything with the birds I collected?" The answer: Not since 1967. So Josh Engel set out to see just what was in the Parelius collection, and, as it turned out, there were some interesting specimens, including a species of warbler that had never been recorded in the country. This resulted in a publication co-authored by Josh, John, and Dan in Malimbus, "The Parelius bird collection from Ivory Coast at the Field Museum of Natural History, and the first country record of Rufous Cisticola Cisticola rufus," which can be downloaded from the Publications page.

19 September 2014: Our colleague Holly Lutz, a doctoral student at Cornell University and long-time associate of the Field Museum, reports in from Kenya, where she's doing field work on bats (she studies birds too!): "Following up on discoveries I've made about the close relationships between avian and bat malaria parasites in Africa, I am collecting samples from bats in Kenya, with the help of Dr. Paul Webala, to further study the evolutionary history of these parasites. I am preparing blood samples from these bats on a special type of microscope slide that will allow me to dissect out individual parasites and sequence their genomes once I am back in the lab. What genetic changes are associated with transitions of malaria parasites from birds to mammals? How many times have these changes occurred, and are they similar or different among different parasite species? These are just a few of the questions I am trying to answer with my research. Very little is known about which Kenyan bats are carrying what parasites, so I am trying to sample as broadly as possible in terms of host species and habitats - including open savannah, tropical rainforest, volcanic caves and lava tubes, and abandoned diatomite mines." See Holly's website to learn more about her research.

19 August 2014: Congratulations to Wanyoike Wamiti on earning his master's degree from Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya! Wamiti spent several months at the Field Museum working on his project, which you can read about on the Students page. We'll post the abstract of his thesis when it's fully finished. He was also just in the United States attending the 5th International Conference of Phthiraptera in Park City, Utah. Part of his trip was funded by the museum's Council of Africa.

2 April 2014: We've added another recent publication by members of the Bird Division along with colleagues in Congo and Denmark. The study, published in the journal Ibis and titled "Genetic structure offers insights into the evolution of migration and the taxonomy of the Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo Cercococcyx montanus species complex," got its start when a P-BEATRA training program in Congo collected particularly interesting Cercococcyx montanus specimens. They were clearly of the migrant subspecies, which had only been recorded twice previously in Congo. Using DNA samples from the Field Museum and the Zoological Museum of the University of Copenhagen, plus study skins from the Yale Peabody Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, we examined the differences in genetics, behavior, and plumage between the migratory subspecies of east and southeast Africa and resident subspecies in the Albertine Rift. The paper can be downloaded from the Publications page, and you can read more about the study at the blog of the British Ornithological Union.

13 March 2014: We were thrilled to recently receive an email from legendary birder Peter Kaestner with a superb photo of a bird near and dear to our Bird Divison hearts--Willard's Sooty Boubou. Its painting--by Tom Gnoske, who first noticed that it may be different from its close relatives--is the frontispiece to this website (see the bottom of the page). It was described to the world in 2010 by scientists from within the Bird Division and our colleagues elsewhere. It's also named after our long time collections manager, Dave Willard. You can read more about the African Birds team looking for the bird in the wild on John Bates' blog. The paper with the original description can be found on our Publications page. This is far and away the best photo of the species that we have seen--the photo can now be found here.

27 February 2014: Congratulations to Innocent Balagizi for succesfully defending his master's thesis. He graciously sent us the full document which is downloadable from the Publications page. See the news item from 28 January for more information.

20 February 2014: The Bird and Mammal Divisions are thrilled to welcome Sadic Waswa to The Field Museum. Sadic is a student at Makerere University in Uganda and is at the Field to collect data for his thesis. He's already been here for a few weeks acclimating to the cold and snow of a real Chicago winter and starting to collect data. You can read more about him and his project on the Students page.

12 February 2014: We're very excited to see some of the best biodiversity heat maps be made publicly available. They are based on a study originally published by Clinton Jenkins and colleagues in the prestigious PNAS journal in 2013. One thing that we love about them is how the Albertine Rift really stands out in many of the maps. For example, in Birds check out global bird diversity and non-passerines (the map labeled "non Passeriformes"). For Mammals check out global mammal diversity, rodents (Rodentia), and primates. Cool stuff!

28 January 2014: Our friend Innocent Balagizi wrote to let us know that he is defending is master's thesis this week. He sent us the abstract, which is posted in the Biodiversity and Conservation section on the Publications page. His research will have very important implications for plant conservation and biology education in eastern Congo, focusing on teaching about medicinal and wild food plants in the region's secondary schools. He writes, "We are working on medicinal and wild food plants of the eastern DRC for technology development and food security! Now we have a community outreach programme [based on] the experience of P-BEATRA." It's great to see the Field Museum's training programs in the region, like P-BEATRA, continuing to influence science and conservation in the Albertine Rift.

19 November 2013: Our Publications page continues to grow. Today we added two new papers from the Bonn zoological Bulletin by Field Museum and Roosevelt University mammalogist Julian C. Kerbis Peterhans and colleagues from DR Congo, Germany, and Uganda. These papers describe the mammal fauna of the poorly known southern Albertine Rift forests of Misotshi-Kabogo on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika and include the descriptions of four new species, two shrews and two insectivorous bats. The papers also suggest that other specimens collected may represent undescribed species. This clearly highlights the need for further biodiversity surveys in this region, one that has been difficult to access in recent years due to lack of infrastructure and civil strife. The papers can be downloaded in the Mammals section on the Publications page.


The Field Museum has a long history of ornithological research in Africa dating back to inventory work by collectors working for the museum and extensive field work by curators W. R. Boulton (West Africa and Angola) and Melvin Traylor (Zambia, Botswana, Egypt and Sudan). The museum also purchased important historical collections of F. J. Jackson and V. G. L. van Someren (Kenya and Uganda) and smaller collections made by Goode (Cameroon) and D. Parelius (Ivory Coast). Since 1990, we have worked in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, and Madagascar. These efforts include collecting specimens, training and providing support to African graduate students and conservation specialists, and conducting scientific research useful for setting conservation priorities in the region. All of our recent work has been in concert with local institutions and colleagues. In Malawi, for example, we have worked with the National Museums of Malawi to make modern surveys of birds throughout the country to understand morphological and genetic diversity in both birds and their parasites/pathogens. This collection may be the most comprehensive modern collection of birds and parasites from any African country, something that will allow comparative work on Malawian birds to be conducted for generations to come.

Painting of the newly described Willard’s Sooty Boubou (Laniarius willardi) by Thomas P. Gnoske that was the cover illustration of the July 2010 issue of The Auk.