About the network

SparrowNet was launched in 2014 in an effort to establish an ongoing research project that can systematically track breeding activity across our region in an effort to understand how our climates effect animal reproduction. The project focuses on a species that is highly amenable to study in the wild and has been the focus of many classic studies in evolutionary ecology over the past five decades in North America and Europe. The basic framework of the project is supported by ARC Future Fellowship funding (awarded to Griffith 2014-2017), but the project will hopefully grow and take additional directions along with new collaborators.

Project Background

Understanding how animal species respond behaviourally and physiologically to climatic variability is key to predicting how they will adapt to a changing climate. Our region is home to a number of native and introduced species that breed across a range of climates and seasons.

The aim of this project is to establish collaborative infrastructure and a research network to systematically study and identify the constraints and adaptations that birds have to adjust to variable climate across Australasia. This large-scale comparative project will provide important insight into the globally observed reproductive failure and changes in breeding times in birds, which have been related to a changing climate and pose a threat to biodiversity. Compared to the excellent long-term data on many bird species in the northern hemisphere (several studies have intensive data going back to the 1950’s), systematic data on the timing of animal breeding seasons are very scarce in our region.

Our interest is in the extent and adaptive significance of phenotypic plasticity of avian reproductive timing and investment, in response to climatic variation. Specifically, we aim to address the following questions:

  1. How do house sparrows time their reproduction to climate variability across the region?
  2. How do individuals tailor the investment they make physiologically into reproduction across climatic variation and long reproductive seasons?
  3. What life history characteristics, behavioural and physiological adaptations confer climatic resilience on house sparrows in our region?

Why house sparrows?

A highly abundant species that readily nests in boxes

Photo credit: Isabel Winney

The climate in our region is characterized by high level of both spatial and temporal heterogeneity. As a result, avian breeding seasons are typically longer than those in the northern hemisphere, with higher levels of opportunistic breeding across a range of temperatures. Thus, monitoring birds or even finding nests can be difficult and time consuming. House sparrows are a highly amenable research species for studies of reproduction in Australasia because:

They are highly abundant in many parts of the region.

They are a human-commensal species, with many accessible populations near urban centres (including university campuses).

They nest readily in nest boxes, which permits systematic monitoring, catching and experimental life-history manipulations.

 

A long-term natural experiment

House sparrow locations from BirdLife Australia atlas data 1998-2014

In the 19th century acclimatization societies in Australia and New Zealand unwittingly started a long-term natural experiment in our region by making attempts to introduce a range of European birds. The first introduction to New Zealand was in 1859 when 300 birds were released. In Australia, the first 19 house sparrows were released in 1863 with further releases over the next decade.¬† By the 1930’s the species was well distributed across all of New Zealand and the eastern half of Australia.

These well-documented introductions provide an opportunity to study how avian species adapt to a dramatic change of climate, and identify characters that confer resilience and success.The adaptability of these species has enabled them to become highly successful invaders. Exploring the resilience and adaptability of these species to the climate variability of this region will help us to identify the selective pressures that exist, and understand the adaptive responses that may be possible
in other bird species.