Date of Award
Master of Science (MS)
Recent advances in the analysis of intrinsic markers, particularly stable isotopes, have allowed great insight into interactions between different stages of the annual cycle of migratory birds. Hydrogen isotope ratios, because of strong latitudinal trends in their distribution, have been widely used to address long-distance movements of migratory birds. Likewise, carbon isotope ratios have been useful in examinations of habitat quality because of their responsiveness to changes in plant community composition. However, basic assumptions underlying the use of certain isotopes have yet to be adequately examined. Additionally, much of the research regarding seasonal interactions in migratory songbirds comes from study of a single species, and it is unclear whether these findings are applicable to a wider range of migrant songbirds. In this study, I collected tissue samples from black-throated blue warblers (Dendroica caerulescens) at a breeding site in New Hampshire to address two important questions regarding stable isotopes and the investigation of seasonal interactions. First, using feather samples from both adult and juvenile birds, I investigated the influence of age, molt timing, and reproductive effort in determining the stable hydrogen isotope ratios that are incorporated into tissue samples. Secondly, I took claw samples from adult birds to examine the importance of winter habitat quality, as inferred through carbon isotope ratios, in determining subsequent reproductive success. I found that hydrogen isotope ratios in feather samples were significantly influenced by both age and molt timing, though not by reproductive effort. The mechanism underlying age-related isotopic variation is unclear, but may be widespread among passerines. In addition, this study is the first to note a significant seasonal trend in feathers grown throughout a breeding season, although the mechanism for this pattern is also unclear. Taken together, these findings have important implications for the use of hydrogen isotope ratios for purposes of geographic assignment. Further research is needed to determine the prevalence and magnitude of age-related and seasonal trends in hydrogen isotope ratios. I recommend that future studies note the age class of birds when sampling for hydrogen isotopes, and researchers should attempt to collect feathers grown early in the molt cycle. Analysis of carbon isotope ratios from claw samples indicated that winter habitat quality did not directly influence subsequent reproductive success. However, winter habitat quality may have an indirect influence on reproductive output. Females from higher quality wintering sites were in significantly better body condition on the breeding grounds, and settled on more insect-rich breeding territories. Both body condition on the breeding grounds and breeding territory quality have previously been shown to influence subsequent reproductive success, in this and other songbird species. These results indicate that winter habitat quality may be important in determining future reproductive success for black-throated blue warblers, and interactions between events during the wintering and breeding periods may need to be incorporated into future population models for this species.
Biasiolli, Traynor, "Using Stable Isotopes to Understand Seasonal Interactions in a Long-Distance Migratory Songbird" (2008). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. 23.