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Physiol Zool. 1998 Nov-Dec;71(6):599-610.

Ecological and evolutionary implications of energy and protein requirements of avian frugivores eating sugary diets.

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Section of Ecology and Systematics, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA.


To assess how the high-sugar/low-protein content of fruit diets affects digestive function and nutrition of frugivorous birds, I compared intake, passage rate, sugar utilization, protein requirements, and mass changes of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), American robins (Turdus migratorius), and wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) fed synthetic diets simulating the range of sugar (6.6%, 12.4%, and 22.0% solutes) and protein (4.5%, 3.0%, and 1.5% of dry matter) content of bird-dispersed fruits. The dietary emphasis on sugary fruits by cedar waxwings suggests the potential for digestive and physiological specializations to this food type. All birds increased volumetric food intake and passage rates as sugar concentration declined. Birds completely (22.0%-12.4% sugar solute concentration) or incompletely (12.4%-6.6% sugar solute concentration) compensated for dietary dilution. Cedar waxwings consumed each diet at higher rates than did thrushes, as they do when eating sugary fruits, demonstrating that interspecific differences in ingestion rates of sugary fruits are a consequence of nutrient composition, rather than seed bulk or secondary compounds of fruits. Passage rate was not responsible for interspecific differences in short-term food intake rate, implicating gut morphology as the key functional feature limiting intake. Most sugary fruits are nutritionally deficient in apparent protein for thrushes but are nutritionally adequate in protein for cedar waxwings because of this species' relatively high intake rates and low protein requirements. The digestive systems of frugivorous birds respond flexibly to dietary sugar concentration, but protein content of fruits can present a nutritional limitation, potentially influencing the proportions of fruit and animal foods in birds' diets.

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