Tropical Avian Ecology

Julio Gallardo, Ph.D.

Red-breasted blackbird

Dept. of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture
Mississippi State University
USGS Mississippi Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit
Phone: (662) 341-6617  Email:

Course Description

This course will start with a gentle introduction to the ecology of tropical birds and their habitats. We will then analyze fundamental concepts of evolution and ecology and discuss bird conservation issues. The main purpose of the course is to provide students with a relevant background in ecology, biogeography, and evolution to build an understanding of natural history as it links to social issues and bird conservation in the tropical Americas. We will be discussing ecological constraints that shape bird diversity in terms of behavioral adaptations, habitats, sexual selection and the evolution of tropical birds. The course will be composed of lectures and critiques of research articles aiming to foster class discussions in which students will help each other breakdown arguments into their various components to question and evaluate them. We will also spend a good amount of time outdoors watching birds, linking class with

Golden-collared manakin

field observations. Through the length of the course, we will nurse the value of educated observations in ecology to identify patterns, ask questions, and find creative answers to practical problems. Students will learn the principles of bird study design and the basic use of analytical tools to address a research question and conservation needs. The course includes a practical component, where students will design and implement field projects individually and in small groups.


Lectures will comprise a summary of several relevant books supported by new findings of relevant scientific articles. The lectures will be primarily based on selected chapters of:

Bridget J.M. Stutchbury and Eugene S. Morton. 2001. Behavioral Ecology of Tropical Birds. Academic Press, London, UK.

Gill, F. 2007. Ornithology. Third Edition. W.H Freeman and Company, New York, NY.

Newton, I. 2013. Bird populations. Harper Collins Publishers, London, UK.

Newton, I. 2003. The Speciation and biogeography or birds. Academic Press, London, UK.

Cody, M.L. (Ed). 1985. Habitat selection in birds. Academic Press, New York, NY.

Some Lecture Topics May Include:

Mealy parrot

  • Introduction to the tropics
    • Tropical origins
    • Tropical environments
  • Introduction to neotropical birds
    • Introduction to bird identification
    • Neotropical bird families
    • Biogeography of neotropical avifauna
    • Birds of Central America and Panama
  • Behavioral Ecology of tropical birds
    • Life history traits and breeding seasons
    • Principals of sexual selection and mating systems
    • Territoriality and communication
  • Niche concept and tropical birds
    • Evolution of the concept
    • Abundance, distribution, and niche
    • Niche on a macroscale
  • Introduction to bird migration
    • The migratory process
    • Migration patterns
    • Population constraints and migration
    • Bird migration in the Americas
  • Introduction to tropical island ecology
    • Introduction to island theory
    • Island biotas and island adaptations
    • Island Conservation
  • Animal abundance estimation

    Three-wattled Bellbird

    • Reasons behind commonness and rarity: the big picture
    • Speciation in the tropics
    • Introduction to habitat selection in birds
  • From populations to communities
    • Introduction to population
    • Introduction to community ecology
    • Measures of diversity
  • Project design
    • How to design a research project
    • Behavioral studies
    • Monitoring projects
  • Data management and analysis
    • Introduction to statistical inference
    • Introduction to program R
    • Basic statistical tools in R
    • Introduction to abundance and occupancy modeling in R

Red-billed tropicbird

Some Examples of Readings:

Brown, J.H. 1984. On relationship between abundance and distribution of species. American Naturalist 124:255–279.

Fretwell, S.D., and H.L. Lucas. 1970. On territorial behavior and other factors influencing habitat distribution in birds. I. Theoretical development. Acta Biotheoretica 19:16–36.

Grant, P.R. and R. Grant. 2006. Evolution of character displacement in Darwin’s Finches. Science 313:224–226.

Jones, J. 2001. Habitat selection studies in avian ecology: a critical review. Auk 118:557-562.

Johnson, M.D. 2007. Measuring habitat quality: a review. Condor 109:489–504.

Losos, J.B., and R.E. Ricklefs. 2009. Adaptation and diversification on islands. Nature 457:830–836.

Stutchbury, B.J.M. and E.S. Morton. 2011. Recent advances in the behavioral ecology of tropical birds. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 120: 26-37.

Recommended Readings:

Great blue heron

Kricher, J. 2017. The new neotropical companion. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Hilty. S. 2005. Birds of the tropical Americas: a watcher’s introduction to behavior, breeding, and diversity. Texas University Press, Austin, TX.

Recommended Field Guide:

Angehr, G.R. and R. Dean.  2010.The Birds of Panama, Zona Tropical Publications, Ithaca, NY.