Migration is one of the most spectacular of animal behaviors and is prevalent across a broad array of taxa. In birds, we know much about the physiological basis of how birds migrate, but less about the relative contribution of genetic versus environmental factors in controlling migratory tendency. To evaluate the extent to which migratory decisions are genetically determined, we examined whether individual western burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) change their migratory tendency from one year to the next at two sites in southern Arizona. We also evaluated the heritability of migratory decisions by using logistic regression to examine the association between the migratory tendency of burrowing owl parents and their offspring. The probability of migrating decreased with age in both sexes and adult males were less migratory than females. Individual owls sometimes changed their migratory tendency from one year to the next, but changes were one-directional: adults that were residents during winter 2004-2005 remained residents the following winter, but 47% of adults that were migrants in winter 2004-2005 became residents the following winter. We found no evidence for an association between the migratory tendency of hatch-year owls and their male or female parents. Migratory tendency of hatch-year owls did not differ between years, study sites or sexes or vary by hatching date. Experimental provision of supplemental food did not affect these relationships. All of our results suggest that heritability of migratory tendency in burrowing owls is low, and that intraspecific variation in migratory tendency is likely due to: (1) environmental factors, or (2) a combination of environmental factors and non-additive genetic variation. The fact that an individual's migratory tendency can change across years implies that widespread anthropogenic changes (i.e., climate change or changes in land use) could potentially cause widespread changes in the migratory tendency of birds. ?? 2009 GovernmentEmployee: U. S. Geological Survey, Department of Interior.
Additional publication details
Migratory decisions in birds: Extent of genetic versus environmental control