Tropical Avian Ecology

James Roper, Ph.D.

Ars Artium Consulting, Caixa Postal 19034, 81331-990 Curitiba, Paraná, Brasil. Phone: +5541-3673-0409, +5541-9981-2559. Email:

Red-breasted blackbird

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. In addition to learning ornithology by following birds in the field, the course will also include lectures and discussions about research articles we’ll read to foster class

Golden-collared manakin

discussions. We will spend as much time as possible outdoors watching birds to identify birds and learn about their relationships (evolutionary history) and behaviors, to better understand how we study them. Throughout the course, we will talk about the value of educated observations in ecology to find patterns, ask questions about those patterns, and find creative ways to answer those questions.  Students will learn the principles of designing field bird studies, along with the basic use of analytical tools to answer questions we (and others) develop. All of these parts will always include the important conservation component – how will we conserve birds and their habitats into the future? The course includes a field research component; students will design and implement field projects in groups.

Course Topics:

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

    Blue-crowned motmot

    • 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


Hilty, S. 2005. Birds of the tropical Americas: a watcher’s introduction to behavior, breeding and diversity.  Texas University Press, Austin, TX.  Kricher, J. 2017.  The new Neotropical Companion.  Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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

Field Notebook:

Great blue heron

A field book will be required in the course. The field book will contain all data related to group projects and the independent research project.  The field book should also contain all other incidental observations such as species lists, bird behavioral notes, etc., and contain detailed location information. The field book must be waterproof and either pencil or waterproof ink used to record data.