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Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2009 Nov-Dec;164(2-3):101-6. doi: 10.1016/j.ygcen.2009.05.014. Epub 2009 May 27.

Are birds stressed during long-term flights? A wind-tunnel study on circulating corticosterone in the red knot.

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  • 1Swiss Ornithological Institute, Luzernerstrasse 6, CH-6204 Sempach, Switzerland. susi.jenni@vogelwarte.ch


During endurance flight most birds do not feed and have to rely on their body reserves. Fat and protein is catabolised to meet the high energetic demands. Even though the hormonal regulation of migration is complex and not yet fully understood, the adrenocortical hormone corticosterone crystallizes to play a major role in controlling physiological traits in migratory birds during flight. However, results from field studies are partially equivocal, not least because data from birds during endurance flight are hard to get and present mostly a momentary shot. A wind-tunnel experiment offered the possibility to measure repeatedly under controlled conditions the effect of long flights on the stress hormone corticosterone. In a long-distance migrating shorebird, the red knot Calidris canutus, we measured plasma concentrations of corticosterone within 3 min and after a restraint time of 30 min directly after 2h and 10h non-stop flights, respectively, and during rest. Baseline corticosterone levels were unchanged directly after the flights, indicating that endurance flight did not affect corticosterone levels. The adrenocortical response to restraint showed the typical rise in birds during rest, while birds after a 2 or 10h flight substantially decreased plasma corticosterone concentrations. We suggest that the negative adrenocortical response to restraint after flight is part of the mechanism to reduce the proteolytic effect of corticosterone to save muscle protein and to avoid muscle damaging effects.

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