Ornithology Department


Blue Crane
Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus | © Trevor Hardaker

The Ornithology Department was established in the early 1970s, with the appointment of Dr Tibor Farkas (1973-1986). The organization of material on display, much of which was exotic in origin, was the primary objective at this time.

Active collection of material began in the mid 1970s, but a lack of resources prevented the addition of new material to the collection between 1979 and 1982.

During Roy Earlé's term as Head of Department (1983-1990), the main objective was to resurrect active collection, focussing on birds representative of the Free State. The organization of the collection however meant its rationalization to about 500 study skins, as a result of deterioration of many specimens.  There are currently more than 4600 skins in the collection.

A skeleton collection, started in 1983, grew rapidly and currently contains more than 2600 specimens. This collection is also widely used by palaeontologists.

Collection of avian ecto-parasites and avian blood parasites began in 1987. The alcohol collection was started in September 1988. A tissue sample collection was started in 2011. Samples were also donated by visiting researchers from the University of New Mexico, the Natural History Museum of Paris, and the University of California.

Management of the Departmental collection was the responsibility of Ben Bester (1984-1985), Hester du Toit (1984-1992), Kotie Herholdt (1985-1988), Mariana de Wet (1986-1989), and Dawie de Swardt (1988 to present).

Rick Nuttall was Head of Department from 1991-2003, whereafter Dawie de Swardt was appointed to this position.

Research - past and present

Rufouseared warbler Photo T. Hardaker
Rufous-eared Warbler Malcorus pectoralis | © Trevor Hardaker

Research in the Department has focused on the taxonomy of the Turdidae, on bird communities of various vegetation types, and on the distribution of species in the Free State Province (Tibor Farkas). Roy Earlé studied the biology of a number of species and groups of birds, including swallows (Hirundinidae), White-browed Sparrow-weaver Plocepasser mahali, Ant-eating Chat Myrmecocichla formicivora, Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, House Passer domesticus and Cape Sparrow P. melanurus, as well as aerial-feeding bird communities in the forested north-eastern parts of South Africa. In collaboration with other researchers, Roy began to identify and describe avian blood parasites of South African birds. Together with Professor Nick Grobler (University of the Free State), he also produced the first Atlas of Bird Distribution in the Orange Free State, published in 1987.

Orange river white-eye Photo T. Hardaker
Orange River White-eye Zosterops pallidus | © Trevor Hardaker

Although employed as Collections Manager, Kotie Herholdt also carried out research, focusing mainly on the distribution patterns of Ludwig's Neotis ludwigii and Denham's Bustard N. denhami, breeding biology of the Ant-eating Chat Myrmecocichla formicivora, and of Little Swifts Apus affinis in urban areas. Similarly, Dawie de Swardt has also been involved in research, mainly on the behaviour of the Northern Black Korhaan Eupodotis afraoides. His current research focuses on the biology, movements and biometrics of Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi and Malachite Sunbird Nectarinia famosa, as well as behaviour (and song dialects between different populations) of the poorly-known African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus. A project was initiated in 2008 investigating the taxonomical relationships of Karoo Prinia maculosa and Drakensberg Prinias P. hypoxantha in the Free State and adjacent areas. In collaboration with Dr Raurie Bowie (University of California, Berkeley, USA) blood samples for DNA analysis are collected from both ringed birds and collected specimens. Biometric and moult data are also collected for analysis. Rick Nuttall's research involves Zosterops (white-eye) systematics, behavioural ecology of estrildid finches (Estrildidae), systematics of various Cisticola species and moult and migration of Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica; the latter also involves collaboration with other swallow researchers, both locally and internationally.