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Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2006 Sep 1;148(2):163-71. Epub 2006 Apr 11.

Effect of human presence and handling on circulating corticosterone levels in breeding blue tits (Parus caeruleus).

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Swiss Ornithological Institute, CH-6204 Sempach, Switzerland.


Birds may react to the presence of humans with an immediate primary behavioural reaction and with physiological responses, such as the activation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis. This study investigates the suite of behavioural and adrenocortical responses to the presence of humans and to handling in two subspecies of blue tits Parus caeruleus, a small hole-nesting passerine, during the period of feeding their nestlings. The first aim was to investigate whether the presence of humans near their nests elicits an adrenocortical response and whether the increase in circulating corticosterone is correlated with the behavioural reaction of the birds. The second aim was to determine the time-lag between the onset of capture and handling stress and the increase in circulating corticosterone levels. The third aim was to try to explain individual variation in the adrenocortical response to handling with 9 intrinsic and extrinsic factors (sex, age, body size, measures of body condition, time of day, and date). One half of the parents showed a behavioural reaction to our presence near the nest, such as alarming, and hesitating to enter the nestbox. However, the degree of behavioural reaction before handling was not related to circulating corticosterone levels which remained low. The results confirm that primary behavioural and adrenocortical reactions to the presence of predators are independent of each other. A comparison with published findings supports the hypothesis that birds react to predators with an adrenocortical response only in a situation that is imminently life-threatening. Hence, the primary behavioural response of the bird to a predator may determine whether or not an adrenocortical response is elicited. An adrenocortical response to handling started 3 min after capture in the nest box. Individual variation in baseline corticosterone levels could be explained by subspecies and body condition (fat stores), variation in handling-induced corticosterone levels by subspecies, body condition, body size, and time of day.

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