The distribution and biology of nomadic birds in the Karoo, South Africa



Dryland nomadic bird species, as a proportion of all bird species in a biome in southern Africa, are highest in the arid grassland and arid and semi-arid Karoo in South Africa. Nomadic birds, of which the most widespread species is the greybacked finchlark Eremopterix verticalis (Smith), are most frequently observed in the north-central and north western Nama Karoo. The species richness of nomadic species is inversely correlated with species richness of all bird species in the Karoo. Since the distribution of nomadic birds is in areas where rainfall is patchy, low (<250 mm per year) and aseasonal, this supports the idea that fewer species are able to cope with resources that are patchy in time and space, and that there has been selection for nomadism in the species that are able to use patchy environments. Species richness and abundance of nomadic birds is negatively correlated with rainfall amount but positively correlated with the coefficient of variation of the rainfall and with rainfall in autumn. The frequency of nomadic birds is inversely correlated with altitude range; nomadic species are most often recorded in structurally simple habitats (shrubland and grassland) on open plains. Most nomadic bird species in the Karoo are granivorous. Perennial desert grasses are important components of the habitat and diet of small nomadic granivores, and also provide nest sites and nest material. Nomadic birds can breed throughout the year, without a clearly defined ‘season’ in both the Succulent and Nama Karoo. Average clutch sizes do not differ significantly between resident and all nomadic species in the arid and semi-arid Karoo. Nomadism is an evolutionary stable strategy for individual species only when extremes in environmental conditions are frequent enough, and unpredictable enough, to maintain movements to high resource patches or to maintain dispersal away from low resource patches. If high rainfall years are too regular or infrequent, or peaks in fluctuations of resources in the environment too low, or rainfall patches are randomly distributed, nomadism would not be maintained as part of the individual behaviour pattern.