This project will investigate the causes of recent declines of Afro-Palearctic migratory birds using satellite-tracking and other novel techniques. Based at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Montpellier, France), with secondments to BirdLife International (Cambridge, UK; 10 months) and to Instituto Superior de Agronomia (Lisbon, Portugal; 0.8 months), and in collaboration with RSPB and BTO (UK).

This is Project 14 out of 15 PhD positions currently available as part of the Inspire4Nature training programme. Deadline for applications: 16 April 2018 (midnight, Brussels time).

PhD topic

Globally, the decline of many migrant birds1,2 represents a major conservation challenge3 but progress is hampered by knowledge gaps relating to migrants’ complex annual cycles. Indeed, for many species there is still limited understanding of their geographical location and habitat requirements during entire parts of their lifecycle, and of the threats affecting them during these periods. Recent advances in satellite tracking and data logger technology allow us to uncover migration routes, stopover sites and wintering areas3,4opening up unique opportunities to identify such areas and habitats.

Example migration tracks of Common Cuckoos breeding in England, Germany, Belarus and China illustrating the diversity of migration routes within breeding populations, convergence to a relatively restricted winter range and use of a restricted area of West Africa in spring (by European populations), indicative of potential conservation hotspot. Unpublished data from BTO (UK & China), LBV (Germany) and APB (Belarus).

This PhD project will build from these technologies to highlight crucial areas for Afro-Paleartic migratory birds, shed light on the causes of recent declines of many of these species, and provide recommendations for future conservation policies and actions.

Specifically, the student will:

  • Collate data from the ever-increasing number of tracking studies on different migratory species, through connections with researchers and existing tracking databases.
  • Apply robust analytical approaches to identify critical areas used by multiple migratory populations and species, building on approaches developed for seabirds5.
  • Combine these results with remote-sensed data on land-cover and climate change, as well as with data on species’ ecology and population trends, to highlight regions where past and ongoing threats are most likely to have resulted in species’ observed declines.

By identifying commonalities between declining species that may be being impacted by the same threats in the same geographic areas and habitats, this project will facilitate more effective targeting of conservation action in time and space, as well as informing future research priorities.

The project will benefit from the extensive experience and expertise of BirdLife, BTO and RSPB in bird conservation and ecology. The student will have ample opportunity to interact with these three organisations during a long (10.8 month) secondment to BirdLife. The work will be largely desk-based but there will be opportunities to spend time in the field in Portugal and/or the UK to gain insights into the deployment and use of tracking technology.

Related references

  1. Vickery, J.A., Ewing, S.R., Smith, K.W., Pain, D.J., Bairlein, F., Škorpilová, J., & Gregory, R.D. (2014) The decline of Afro-Palaearctic migrants and an assessment of potential causes. Ibis, 156, 1–22.
  2. Faaborg, J., Holmes, R.T., Anders, A.D., Bildstein,K.L., Dugger, K.M., Gauthreaux Jr., S.A., Heglund,P., Hobson,K.A., Jahn, A.E., Johnson,D.H., Latta,S.C., Levey, D. J., Marra, P.P., Merkord,C.L., Nol,E., Rothstein,S.I., Sherry, T. W., Sillett, T. S., Thompson III, F. R., Warnock, N. (2010) Conserving migratory land birds in the New World: do we know enough? Ecological Applications 20, 398–418.
  3. Finch, T., Saunders,P., Avilés, J. M. Bermejo, A., Catry, I., de la Puente, J., Emmenegger, T., Mardega, I., Mayet, P., Parejo, D., Račinskis, E., Rodríguez-Ruiz, J., Sackl, P., Schwartz,T., Tiefenbach,M., Valera,F., Hewson,C., Franco, A., Butler, S.J. (2015) Diversity & Distributions 21, 1051-1062.
  4. Hewson, C.M., Thorup, K., Pearce-Higgins, J.W. & Atkinson, P.W. (2016) Population decline is linked to migration route in the Common Cuckoo, a long-distance nocturnally-migrating bird. Nature Communications 7, 12296.
  5. Lascelles, Taylor, P.R., Miller, M. G. R., Dias, M. P., Oppel, S. Torres, L., Hedd, A. Corre, M. Le, Phillips, R. A. Shaffer, S. A. Weimerskirch, H. Small, C. (2016) Applying global criteria to tracking data to define important areas for marine conservation. Diversity & Distributions 22, 422-431.

The pdfs of these articles can be downloaded here.

Institutional context

The PhD student will be hired by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the largest public research organisation in France, and enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Montpellier. S/he will be physically based at the Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive (CEFE), in Montpellier, France. The CEFE is the largest research centre in Ecology in France, and a Joint Research Unit of the CNRS and the University of Montpellier. The academic supervisor of this project is Ana Rodrigues, a CNRS Senior Researcher.

The project is in collaboration with the Instituto Superior de Agronomia (ISA), the largest school in the Agricultural Sciences in Portugal, and its  Centre for Applied Ecology Prof. “Baeta Neves”, (CEABN). More specifically, the student will be co-supervised by Inês Catry (Postdoctoral Researcher), and will spend a short secondment period in Portugal.

This project is also in close collaboration with BirdLife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). These three organisations hold key data-sets, have experience in collating and analyzing tracking and other data-sets, and have a wide network of contacts within relevant researcher communities, all of which will prove crucial to the project.

BirdLife International is the world’s largest nature conservation partnership, whose work focuses on the conservation of birds, their habitats and global biodiversity. The student will work with the Science, Policy and Information Management Department, which manages global data-sets, conducts international policy work and carries out research to underpin conservation action. There, s/he will be supervised by Vicky Jones(Flyways Science Coordinator) in collaboration with Maria Dias (Senior Marine Scientist) and Stuart Butchart(Chief Scientist).

The RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity. With a large portfolio of international conservation work, it is well-positioned to ensure the latest scientific knowledge is used to inform conservation priority-setting, international policy work and action on the ground. Within the RSPB Juliet Vickery (Head, International Research at the Centre for Conservation Science) will be a member of the Student Thesis Committee and the student will benefit from the advice and experience of RSPB’s International Research team.

The BTO is an independent charitable research institute combining professional and citizen science aimed at using evidence of change in wildlife populations, particularly birds, to inform the public, opinion-formers and environmental policy- and decision-makers. Chris Hewson (Senior Research Ecologist), will be a member of the Student Thesis Committee and the student will benefit from the advice and experience of the BTO’s International Research Team.

The student will spend 10-months based at the BirdLife global secretariat in Cambridge, UK, in the David Attenborough Building. This building houses nine conservation organisations, also including BTO and RSPB, and several departments of the University of Cambridge, who together form the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

Salary: gross monthly income ca. 2500-2800€/month, net ca. 2000-2300€/month (depending on family circumstances; see here – under “Fantastic working conditions” for more details).

Ideal candidate

Candidates must meet all the general eligibility conditions applicable to all Inspire4Nature PhD positions, as described under “check if you are eligible” in this page. In particular: candidates cannot have resided or carried out their main activity (work, studies, etc.) in France for more than 12 months within the previous 3 years, and must be early-stage researchers (no PhD yet, within the first 4 years of their research careers). In addition:

Required for this position:

  • A Master’s degree and strong academic record in a relevant subject (e.g./ biological science, zoology, ecology)
  • Competency in the use of R (or another programming language) including in statistical analyses.
  • Good proficiency in English: at least B2 level in understanding, speaking and writing as defined by the European Language Levels Self-Assessment Grid.

Desirable for this position:

  • Experience in spatial data analyses (e.g, with ArcGIS, QGIS, R).
  • Conversational skills in French desirable; if not, knowledge of another Latin language an advantage.

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for an interview planned for the 31st May-1st June – please keep these dates open.

Useful links


For any questions regarding application procedures, check this page first. If you cannot find your answer there, contact us. For any questions regarding the scientific content and institutional context of the PhD, contact Dr. Ana Rodrigues.

Ready to apply?

For the instructions on how to prepare and submit your application, go to this page.

Only applications that are complete, in English, that respect the instructions in this page and that have been submitted before the deadline (16 April 2018) will be considered eligible.