Habitat quality affects stress responses and survival in a bird wintering under extremely low ambient temperatures


Animals normally respond to stressful environmental stimuli by releasing glucocorticoid hormones. We investigated whether baseline corticosterone (CORT), handling-induced corticosterone concentration(s), and body condition indices of members of willow tit (Poecile montanus) groups differed while wintering in old growth forests and managed young forests in mild weather conditions and during cold spells. Willow tits spend the winter season in non-kin groups in which dominant individuals typically claim their priority to access resources, while subordinate individuals may experience greater levels of stress and higher mortality, especially during cold spells. We captured birds to measure baseline CORT and levels of handling-induced CORT secretion after 20 min of capture. Willow tits in the young forests had higher baseline CORT and a smaller increase in CORT in response to capture than individuals in the old forests. Baseline CORT was higher in females and juvenile birds compared to adult males, whereas handling-induced CORT secretion did not differ between birds of different ages. During cold spells, baseline CORT of willow tits increased and handling-induced CORT secretion decreased, especially in birds in young forests. Willow tits’ survival was higher in the old forests, with dominant individuals surviving better than subordinates. Our results show that changes in CORT secretion reflect responses to habitat quality and climate harshness, indicating young managed coniferous forests as a suboptimal habitat for the willow tit.

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