PHD Project

November 9, 2020

Understanding how habitat quality, insect abundance and aquatic subsidies impact population change in a rapidly declining bird

Understanding how habitat quality, insect abundance and aquatic subsidies impact population change in a rapidly declining bird

Global declines in migrant bird populations are a major threat to the world’s ecosystems. Migrants provide vital ecosystem services at large spatial scales, and avian population trends are key indicators of environmental change. Understanding and reversing the declines in migrant populations is therefore a conservation priority, but the underlying causes are unclear. While a growing body of evidence suggests that climate change is influential, the importance of other aspects of environmental change are often overlooked. For example, widely reported collapses in insect numbers may severely affect insectivorous migrants, but this has rarely been investigated. This project addresses these issues by focussing on the spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata), one of the UK’s most rapidly declining birds. An obligate insectivore, this species is an important indicator of environmental health and an ideal model for studying the link between declines in insects and migrant birds. The project combines analyses of long-term data with fieldwork, spatial analysis, labwork and population modelling in order to: (1) investigate the impact of habitat change and invertebrate abundance on national population trends; (2) determine how habitat quality and food availability affect breeding success in a local population; and (3) develop a model of population change. The results will provide critical information to the conservation of spotted flycatchers, but will also offer unique insights into the decline of migratory species more generally. The research includes exciting fieldwork in Yorkshire Dales National Park, cutting-edge laboratory techniques (e.g. eDNA and stable isotope analyses) and the analysis of exceptional long-term data sets on birds and insects. Full training will be provided for all of these elements, giving the student a diverse skill set for a career in ecology or conservation. The student will work alongside researchers from the host institutions and from the British Trust for Ornithology and Natural England.


We are looking for applicants with a strong interest in avian ecology and conservation, good ecological field experience and a willingness to work alongside a diverse range of partners. Applicants must also hold a minimum of a UK Honours degree at 2:1 level or equivalent in a relevant discipline and a valid driving licence. Experience with bird ringing, GIS, lab work and mathematical modelling are all advantageous but not essential.


For further details please contact Dr Stuart Sharp ( or Dr Richard Broughton (