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Integr Comp Biol. 2011 Sep;51(3):385-93. doi: 10.1093/icb/icr054. Epub 2011 Jun 25.

During stopover, migrating blackcaps adjust behavior and intake of food depending on the content of protein in their diets.

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  • 1Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology, The Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Sede Boqer Campus, 84990 Midreshet Ben-Gurion, Israel.


During migration, birds undergo alternating periods of fasting and re-feeding that are associated with dynamic changes in body mass (m(b)) and in organ size, including that of the digestive tract. After arrival at a migratory stopover site, following a long flight, a bird must restore the tissues of its digestive tract before it can refuel. In the present study we examined how the availability of dietary protein influences refueling of migrating blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) during a migratory stopover. We tested the following predictions in blackcaps deprived of food and water for 1-2 days to induce stopover behavior: (1) birds provided with a low-protein diet will gain m(b), lean mass and fat mass, and increase in pectoral muscle size slower than do birds fed a high-protein diet; (2) since stopover time is shorter in spring, birds will gain m(b) and build up fat tissue and lean tissue faster than in autumn; and (3) if low dietary protein limits a bird's ability to gain m(b) and fat reserves, then birds that do not obtain enough protein will initiate migratory restlessness (Zugunruhe) earlier than will birds with adequate dietary protein. These predictions were tested by providing captured migrating blackcaps with semisynthetic isocaloric diets differing only in their protein content. Each day, we measured m(b), and food intake; also lean mass and fat mass were measured using dual energy X-ray absorptiometry. In addition, we monitored nocturnal activity with a video recording system. In both spring and autumn, birds fed diets containing either 3 or 20% protein increased in m(b), lean mass and fat mass at similar rates during the experiment. However, the group receiving 3% protein ate more than did the group receiving 20% protein. In support of our predictions, m(b), lean mass, fat mass, and intake of food all were higher in spring than in autumn. We also found that in spring all birds had higher levels of migratory restlessness, but birds fed 3% protein were less active at night than were birds fed 20% protein, possibly an adaptation conserving energy and protein. We conclude that protein requirements of migrating blackcaps during stopover are lower than expected, and that birds can compensate for low dietary protein by behavioral responses, i.e. hyperphagia and decreased migratory restlessness, that ensure rapid refueling.

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