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Food supply controls the body condition of a migrant bird wintering in the tropics

Brown, David R., Sherry, Thomas W.
Oecologia 2006 v.149 no.1 pp. 22-32
birds, body condition, environmental factors, feathers, food availability, food processing, food supply, habitats, lipids, muscles, population structure, rain, regrowth, tropics, winter, Jamaica
The hypothesis that migratory bird populations are limited during the non-breeding season is increasingly supported by empirical studies that also suggest consequences that carry-over into subsequent seasons. Although variation in food supply is the best supported explanation for non-breeding season limitation, the ecological mechanisms and physiological consequences are not well understood. We both supplemented and reduced Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) food availability on replicate plots in Jamaica in each of 3 years to determine the direct role of food in limiting the physical condition of Ovenbirds. Annual variation in rainfall and food supply created a natural experiment in parallel with manipulations. Sex and age-classes of Ovenbirds did not respond differently in terms of body condition to either food manipulation or natural variation in environmental conditions, suggesting that this population is not structured by strong dominance relationships. Ovenbird body mass, fat, and pectoralis muscle shape were positively and predictably related to manipulated food availability. Feather regrowth rate also responded positively to food supplementation and negatively to food reduction in the drier of 2 years. Prior to manipulation, annual variation in body mass corresponded to annual variation in food supply and rainfall, providing additional, correlational evidence of food limitation. Since multiple intercorrelated body condition indices of Ovenbirds responded directly to food supply, and since food supply influenced body condition independently of other habitat features, we argue that food is a primary driver of non-breeding season population limitation. Moreover, since these effects were observed during the late non-breeding period, when individuals are preparing to migrate, we infer that food availability likely initiates carry-over effects.