Birds in the city: population trends and functional responses (contact Aimara Planillo)

Responses of migratory birds towards the urbanisation gradient (contact Aimara Planillo). We expect that residents start breeding earlier on in the season, especially in more urbanized areas, where the competition for nesting sites will be strongest.  We will work with a dataset that contains the species and breeding territories present at each of the 30 Berlin transects. Data analyses will consist of three main steps. First, to obtain the relevant information for the 30 transects of the monitoring program, extracting spatial information from GIS data. Second, a preliminary exploration of the environmental data and the bird data to understand the potential patterns and select the appropriate environmental variables for the analysis. Finally, the proxy for arrival times (number of visit) will be analyzed in relation to migratory status and to environmental variables using generalized linear mixed models (GLMM).

Functional traits of urban birds (contact Aimara Planillo). The project will focus on data from bird species in Berlin and analyze the relationship between functional traits (such as body size, diet preference or nest type) and environmental conditions in the urbanization gradient. The main objectives are: i) define species response to urbanization based on their functional traits (avoidance, tolerance, exploitation of urbanized areas); ii) identify the key species traits that determine species response to urbanization; iii) compare community composition in terms of functional traits in different sites of the urbanization gradient (rural – suburban – urban). Trait response to urbanization and trait diversity will be analyzed using multiple statistical techniques adequate for each question. Diversity analyses will be performed using Hill numbers, and traits responses to urbanization gradient will be analyzed by multivariate (multiresponse) analyses.

Population trends of birds inhabiting urban areas (contact Aimara Planillo). To assess population trends of different breeding birds it is essential to follow the birds´ breeding behaviour and abundance across several years. By comparing numbers of successive monitoring years within different monitoring periods (e.g. between 2000 – 2019) it is possible to look at recent developments of selected species. Using spatial data and General linear models we will analyze abundance patterns through the years and identity possible traits that allow species to flourish in urban habitats.

Assessing resource-mediated movement strategies of breeding starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)

(contact Marius Grabow)

Short Abstract: Reproduction and survival are key elements in the life-history of individuals and have significant impact on fitness of populations. Among other species, the Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is declining in Europe mainly due to agricultural intensification and associated loss of biodiversity, which is decreased habitat quality in the face of foraging quality (Heldbjerg et al., 2017). During breeding season of birds, foraging movements of parents play a substantial role regarding reproduction success and survival of nestlings.

 However, the impacts of foraging in lower quality habitat might be mitigated by increased effort in parental care, for example by increased foraging movements (Tremblay et al., 2005) or altered patterns of bi-parental care (Cockburn, 2006). Theoretical frameworks, such as Life-history theory, predict individuals to allocate resources in favour of single traits, while neglecting others (Stearns, 1992). These trade-offs allow individuals to cope with extensive changes of resource availability, e.g. increased paternal care allows to persist in lower quality habitat without decreasing reproduction rates.

In this Master thesis, we will capture adult Starlings in two habitat types of different foraging quality and equip them with VHF-tags of the ATLAS system to derive high resolution information about their movements during nestling period. By applying statistical methods, such as Step-Selection Functions (Fortin et al., 2005), we will estimate spatiotemporal resource selection of animals moving through the landscape (Thurfjell et al., 2014). Simultaneous control of deployed nest boxes gives us supporting information about reproduction success so that we can characterize and assess foraging decisions in the different habitat types and their feedback to reproduction.


  • Own research focus and interests are a real enrichment, we are happy to hear your ideas (e.g. assessing habitat quality based on invertebrate abundance or grazing type)
  • Interest in scientific work (reviewing literature, conducting field work, statistical experiments and publishing results)
  • Profound knowledge of spatial R and interest in working with high resolution movement data; candidates should feel comfortable in applying advanced statistical methods in coding environments
  • High flexibility for the field work season (April-July) in Uckermark (around 2h car ride from Berlin). Field work days will cover 1-3 full days of work each week in agreement to other participants of the project, are physically demanding and (sometimes) require overnight stays at our field work station. Accommodation and travel costs will be covered

Cockburn, A. (2006). Prevalence of different modes of parental care in birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273(1592), 1375–1383.

Fortin, D., Beyer, H. L., Boyce, M. S., Smith, D. W., Duchesne, T., & Mao, J. S. (2005). Wolves influence elk movements: Behavior shapes a trophic cascade in Yellowstone National Park. Ecology, 86(5), 1320–1330.

Heldbjerg, H., Fox, A. D., Thellesen, P. V., Dalby, L., & Sunde, P. (2017). Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) increasingly select for grazed areas with increasing distance-to-nest. PLoS ONE, 12(8), 1–17.

Roselli, M. A., Cady, S. M., Lao, S., Noden, B. H., & Loss, S. R. (2020). Variation in Tick Load among Bird Body Parts: Implications for Studying the Role of Birds in the Ecology and Epidemiology of Tick-Borne Diseases. Journal of Medical Entomology, 57(3), 845–851.

Stearns, S. C. (1992). The evolution of life histories. Oxford University Press.

Thurfjell, H., Ciuti, S., & Boyce, M. S. (2014). Applications of step-selection functions in ecology and conservation. Movement Ecology, 2(1), 1–12.

Tremblay, I., Thomas, D., Blondel, J., Perret, P., & Lambrechts, M. M. (2005). The effect of habitat quality on foraging patterns, provisioning rate and nestling growth in Corsican Blue Tits Parus caeruleus. Ibis, 147(1), 17–24.

Factors related to Berlin urban mammal diversity (contact Julie Louvrier).

The student will run a two- species-interaction occupancy model or a multi-species occupancy model with frequentist or Bayesian approach on urban mammal diversity. The data was obtained from a camera-trap project within gardens of Berlin citizens (see Urban Wildlife Ecology Project on Team2 page). Several species can be investigated as well as their interactions in regard to different environmental factors at the city scale but also at the garden scale. Knowledge in spatial R and occupancy models is of advantage.

Assessing the spread of the German wolf population (contact Julie Louvrier).

We currently develop a dynamic model in Netlogo to reconstruct the expansion of the German wolf population (see Wildlife distribution Project on Team2 page). The student will investigate different literature-derived movement rules for wolves (whether related to habitat, population density etc.) and their influence on the fate of the population on a national scale. The student will work on a developed spatially-explicit agent-based model. Sound knowledge in NetLogo and spatial R is required.