+27 71 448 3496

Climate change: How much more heat can birds take?

Share Article
The heaviest flying bird in the world, the Kori Bustard, occurs in the north of Namibia. Extreme weather conditions are typical in this part of the world, and it is expected to become even more intense in the future. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Climate change: How much more heat can birds take?

A project led by the University of Pretoria looks at how extreme heat affects different bird species

Rising temperatures because of climate change will affect bird species differently. Their abilities to withstand extremely hot conditions depend on the part of the world that they find themselves in and the climatic region to which their physiology has become adapted over the course of millennia.

This is according to a new study by ornithologists of the University of Pretoria (UP) who are involved in the Hot Birds Research Project. The findings of the study have been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) and is based on the PhD work of UP zoology student Marc Freeman.

The study shows that birds from hot, humid climates, for instance, can handle larger spikes in body temperature than those flying about in hot deserts or cool mountains. “It is vital to know just how much heat birds and other animals can stand before their bodies start shutting down on an extremely hot day,” says lead researcher Professor Andrew McKechnie of UP’s Department of Zoology and Entomology and South African Research Chair in Conservation Physiology.

“Knowing this will help us to make better predictions about how vulnerable they are to higher temperatures and more frequent and intense heatwaves; whether such extreme events might be lethal to them; and under which conditions and at which temperatures we might see them dying on a large scale in future.” Prof McKechnie is co-principal investigator of the international Hot Birds Research Project, a multidisciplinary research group that has involved ornithologists at UP, the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University and several institutions abroad, including the University of New Mexico, over the past decade.

Desert birds and climate change

The project seeks to find out whether and to what degree desert birds will be able to withstand rising temperatures in light of climate change and an expected 3° Celsius (C) temperature rise in some parts of the world.

In recent years, lethal heatwaves have become increasingly common worldwide. In Australia, for instance, such events have already caused the deaths of birds and fruit bats en masse.

In 2018, a third of the country’s population of spectacled flying foxes (a type of fruit bat) died over the course of two extremely hot and humid days. “The first such event in South Africa was recorded around Pongola in northern KwaZulu-Natal in November 2020, on a humid day when temperatures quickly reached 45°C,” Prof McKechnie says.

“Twelve species of birds, including blue waxbills, fork-tailed drongos, magpie shrikes and yellow-fronted canaries, died, as well as 50 Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bats.”

He explains that each bird species has a particular resting body temperature and a maximum threshold to which their internal body temperatures can increase before their activity levels and bodily function is affected.

Once the threshold is reached, overheating as a result of hyperthermia and subsequent heat exhaustion can prove fatal. Page 2 of 3 For the PNAS study, members of the Hot Birds team collected data from 53 bird species across Southern Africa. The sites chosen experience different air temperatures and levels of humidity and ranged from Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal and Harrismith in the Free State to desert areas in the Northern Cape.

The research team found that red-billed queleas (Quelea quelea) are able to withstand body temperatures up to 48°C, which was the highest temperature measured.

At the other end of the scale, Burchell’s starlings (Lamprotornis australis) can handle 43°C before showing signs of severe heat stress. In terms of the maximum air temperatures the various species could handle, heat tolerance limits ranged from 43.3°C to 56°C.

Desert birds adapts slower

Unexpectedly, the team found that bird species living in humid lowland sites, and not desert birds, were able to withstand higher body temperature extremes and could tolerate hyperthermia better before experiencing difficulty moving and could no longer safely regulate their body temperatures.

“The ability of birds from lowland areas to better handle hyperthermia has to do with their internal body temperatures being able to rise higher, and them having a lower resting body temperature than birds from other regions,” Prof McKechnie says.

Humid conditions are typically very difficult to handle when combined with hot weather. Prof McKechnie says these differences have evolved over millennia as birds have become adapted to the climates of the particular regions that they find themselves in.

“Climate change is relentless and ongoing, and the habitats in which birds live are heating up,” he says. “In hot environments, many species already live life on the edge and can give us early warning of the impacts of change.

We are studying the capacity of these birds to tolerate elevated body temperatures, and how this capacity varies among species.” Marc Freeman completed the current study under controlled hot and dry conditions, and is now analysing data from a similar study completed under hot, humid conditions. For more on the Hot Birds Project, go to https://hbresearchproject.wixsite.com/hbresearchproject/hbresearchproject or the project’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/hotbirdsresearchprojec


The WhyAfrica Southern Africa Overland Road Trip will take us through five countries in 44 days. During this time, we will drive more than 9700km on the good roads, the bad roads, dirt roads and tarred roads, to visit close to 30 projects in the mining, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, tourism, conservation, and development sectors.


This trip is made possible by:



WhyAfrica provides you with business intelligence that matters. WhyAfrica specialises in African affairs and natural resources. Africa is our business, and we want it to be yours too. To subscribe to WhyAfrica’s free newsletter or digital magazine, and for more news on Africa, visit the website at www.whyafrica.co.za or send a direct message. WhyAfrica launched its first ever digital magazine in November 2021. The company will undertake a road trip through South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana in June and July 2022. If you are interested in sponsorship or advertising opportunities, please contact me at leon@whyafrica.co.za. We have a wide range of different packages and combo deals to give your company the greatest exposure to a rapidly growing, African readership.  

The Road trip issue of WhyAfrica’s magazine is now available in print. The magazine will be distributed in South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana during WhyAfrica’s Southern Africa Overland Road Trip, the company’s new and innovative platform. WhyAfrica has expanded its product range and now offers its readers, followers, advertisers, subscribers and partners the following:

  • Daily 24/7 online articles on WhyAfrica’s website (FREE)
  • Daily updates on WhyAfrica’s social media platforms (FREE)
  • Newsletters delivered to a handpicked audience every two weeks (FREE)
  • Two printed magazine per year distributed at large events and during our road trips across Africa featuring original, in-depth articles (FREE) with great, on-site photographs by the WhyAfrica team (FOR SALE UPON REQUEST)
  • Three digital magazines per year (FREE)
  • Live updates, video clips, articles, and podcasts during and after WhyAfrica’s annual road trips (Southern Africa in 2022, East Africa in 2023 and West Africa in 2024) (FREE)
  • Sponsorship and advertising opportunities for the annual WhyAfrica Overland Road Trips (PAID FOR)
  • A library where companies doing business in Africa can display scientific or research papers (PAID FOR)
  • A product section where companies doing business in Africa can display new offerings or services (PAID FOR)
  • Media partnerships with, and a presence at, most of the major conferences and exhibitions in the African mining, energy, agriculture, infrastructure, water management, ESG, environmental management, tourism, development, and conservation sectors (FREE)
  • WhyAfrica connects potential investors with new ventures in Africa and suppliers and service providers with existing companies in Africa (PAID FOR)
  • WhyAfrica assists companies in generating content focused on the wider African business community (PAID FOR)
  • Partnerships with companies doing business in Africa (PAID FOR)
  • Partnerships with companies thinking about expanding into Africa (PAID FOR)
  • In 2023 subscribers will have access to our in-depth articles about the African political economy, research, and country reports about the countries we visit on our road trips, and trends in the sectors that we cover (PAID FOR)
  • A WhyAfrica book is in the pipeline and if all goes according to plan, should be published towards the end of 2023 (PAID FOR)
  • The WhyAfrica consultancy arm assists and advises companies doing business in Africa through utilising our extensive global business network (PAID FOR)

Become part of the WhyAfrica community. Tell us your story. Expand your footprint across Africa and partner with us to make the most of your African experience.           

Share Article


AgricultureEnvironmental Management & Climate ChangeEnergyESGInfrastructureMiningPolitical EconomyTourism and ConservationWater Management