Carbon isotope turnover as a measure of arrival time in migratory birds

Journal of Ornithology
By:  and 



Arrival time on breeding or non-breeding areas is of interest in many ecological studies exploring fitness consequences of migratory schedules. However, in most field studies, it is difficult to precisely assess arrival time of individuals. Here, we use carbon isotope turnover in avian blood as a technique to estimate arrival time for birds switching from one habitat or environment to another. Stable carbon isotope ratios (δ13C) in blood assimilate to a new equilibrium following a diet switch according to an exponential decay function. This relationship can be used to determine the time a diet switch occurred if δ13C of both the old and new diet are known. We used published data of captive birds to validate that this approach provides reliable estimates of the time since a diet switch within 1–3 weeks after the diet switch. We then explored the utility of this technique for King Eiders (Somateria spectabilis) arriving on terrestrial breeding grounds after wintering and migration at sea. We estimated arrival time on breeding grounds in northern Alaska (95% CI) from red blood cell δ13C turnover to be 4–9 June. This estimate overlapped with arrival time of birds from the same study site tracked with satellite transmitters (5–12 June). Therefore, we conclude that this method provides a simple yet reliable way to assess arrival time of birds moving between isotopically distinct environments.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Carbon isotope turnover as a measure of arrival time in migratory birds
Series title Journal of Ornithology
DOI 10.1007/s10336-009-0434-y
Volume 151
Issue 1
Year Published 2009
Language English
Publisher Springer-Verlag
Contributing office(s) Coop Res Unit Leetown
Description 9 p.
First page 123
Last page 131
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N