Stopover departure decisions in songbirds: do long-distance migrants depart earlier and more independently of weather conditions than medium-distance migrants?

Authors: Florian Packmor1, Thomas Klinner, Bradley K. Woodworth, Cas Eikenaar1 and Heiko Schmaljohann

Year: 2020

Publication: Movement Ecology

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Keywords: Departure decision, Departure timing, Fuel load, Long-distance migration, Medium-distance migration, Songbird, Weather conditions


Background: Songbirds following distinct migration strategies (e.g. long- vs. short- to medium-distance migrants) often differ in their speed of migration during autumn and, thus, are assumed to face different time constraints. During migration, most songbird species alternate migratory flights with stopover periods. Many of them restrict these migratory flights to the night, i.e., they are nocturnal migrants. At stopover, nocturnal migrants need to select a specific night (night-to-night decision) and time of night (within-night decision) to resume migration. These departure decisions, which largely determine the speed of migration, are jointly affected by a set of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, i.e., departure cues. Here we aim to assess whether the set of intrinsic and extrinsic factors and the magnitude of their respective effects on stopover departure decisions differs between nocturnally migrating
songbird species, depending on their migration strategy and associated time constraints.
Methods: We radio-tracked migrating Northern Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe; long-distance migrant), European robins (Erithacus rubecula) and Common Blackbirds (Turdus merula; both medium-distance migrants) during autumn stopover and analysed their night-to-night and within-night departure timing in relation to intrinsic and extrinsic factors.
Results: Species generally differed in their departure timing on both temporal scales, with shortest stopovers and earliest nocturnal departures in the long-distance migrant. Some factors, such as day of year, fuel load, cloud cover and crosswind, had consistent effects on stopover departure decisions in all three species. However, species differed in the effects of tailwind assistance, change in atmospheric pressure and air temperature on their stopover departure decisions. Whereas night-to-night decisions were affected by these extrinsic factors in either both or one of the medium-distance
migrants, such effects were not found in the long-distance migrant.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that the general timing of departures in songbirds is affected by the species-specific migration strategy and associated time constraints. Further, they imply that the assessment and usage of specific extrinsic factors, i.e., weather conditions, as departure cues is adjusted based on this migration strategy, with the long-distance migrants being least selective at departure. Other intrinsic and extrinsic factors, however, seem to be used as departure cues independent of migration strategy.

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