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Assigning birds to wintering and breeding grounds using stable isotopes: lessons from two feather generations among three intercontinental migrants

Rocque, Deborah A., Ben-David, Merav, Barry, Ronald P., Winker, Kevin
Journal für Ornithologie 2006 v.147 no.2 pp. 395-404
Charadriidae, birds, breeding sites, feathers, overwintering, population genetics, stable isotopes, winter, Africa, Asia, North America, South America
Geographic origins of populations and migration patterns of several vertebrate and invertebrate species have been inferred from geographically distinct isotopesin their tissues. To test the hypothesis that feathers grown on different continents would reflect continental differences of δD in precipitation and have significantly different stable isotope ratios, we analyzed stable isotopes in two generations of feathers from three bird species (American and Pacific golden-plovers, Pluvialis dominica and P. fulva, and northern wheatearsOenanthe oenanthe) that breed in North America and winter in South America, the South Pacific and Asia, and Africa. We found significant differences in stable isotope signatures between summer- and winter-grown feathers in the plovers, and our use of two generations of feathers provided similar variation to that reported in studies using larger sample sizes. Incontrast to plovers, no differences were detected in isotope values between summer- and winter-grown feathers in wheatears. Discriminant analyses separated 80% of summer- and winter-grown feathers for each plover species. Nonetheless, an “assignment with exclusion” method adapted from population genetics to impart a measure of confidence in assigning individuals to groups of origin resulted in an overall accuracy among plovers of only 41%, compared with a 63% assignment accuracy when the exclusion criterion was removed. Thus, we were unable to accurately assign feathers to origin of growth on the continental scale. Moreover, using δD expectations for North America, we were unable to assign summer-grown plover feathers to within better than several thousand kilometers of their true origins. We urge researchers to carefully consider the ecology and physiology of their study organisms, statistical methodology, and the interpretation of results when using stable isotopes to infer the geographic origins of feather growth.