Rapid recovery by fat- and muscle-depleted Blackpoll Warblers following trans-oceanic migration is driven by time-minimization

Author: Bayly et al.

Publication: Ornithology

Publication Link: https://doi.org/10.1093/ornithology/ukab055

Keywords: Colombia, endurance flights, fuel deposition rate, La Guajira, optimal migration theory, physiology,
Setophaga striata, stopover duration

Abstract: Nonstop endurance flights are a defining characteristic of many long-distance migratory birds, but subsequent recovery
phases are not typically distinguished from fueling phases (collectively “stopovers”), despite endurance flights inducing
marked physiological changes including flight muscle atrophy and gastrointestinal tract reductions. Here, we hypothesize
that recovery requires unique behavioral adaptations, leading to departures from the predictions of optimal migration
theory for time-minimizing migrants. We predict that recovering birds will (1) select (moist) food-rich habitats on arrival;
(2) have slow initial fueling rates due to decreased gastrointestinal capacity; (3) show a negative correlation between
stopover duration and arrival condition instead of a negative correlation with fuel deposition rate (FDR); (4) stopover
longer than required to store energy reserves for subsequent flights; and (5) show evidence of rebuilding flight muscles.
To test these predictions, we studied Blackpoll Warblers (Setophaga striata) in northern Colombia following trans-oceanic
flights >2,250 km. Birds selected dry seasonal habitats, despite the proximity of moist forests, and among 1,227 captured
individuals, 14–21% were emaciated and 88% had atrophied flight muscles. We recaptured 74 individuals, revealing net
positive mass gains and, contrary to prediction (2), no evidence for slow initial recovery rates. Contrary to prediction (3),
stopover duration was only weakly correlated with arrival condition and birds with high FDR (4.9% lean body mass day–1)
had shorter durations (3 days) relative to birds with slower rates (7 days): both groups accumulated sufficient fuel to reach
nonbreeding (over-wintering) grounds 500–1,000 km away. Mass increases were largely attributable to fat deposition
but some birds improved flight muscle condition (31.9%), consistent with prediction (5). Together these results reveal a
strong selection for time-minimization in the decisions made by Blackpoll Warblers following trans-oceanic flights, likely
mediated through advantages to early arrival on nonbreeding grounds, contrary to our hypothesis of recovery imposing
unique selection pressures.

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