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Isotopes from feathers reveal bird migration

Using naturally occurring patterns of stable-isotopes created by weather and plants, Jason Duxbury of the University of Alberta and his colleagues are tracking the migration routes of birds of prey. Their work on the summer origins of migrating and wintering Peregrine Falcons and Burrowing Owls has shed new light on what has previously been the secret, non-breeding half of the birds' lives.

By analyzing stable isotopes of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen in bird feathers, Duxbury has been able to trace Burrowing Owls wintering grounds in southern Texas and central Mexico, as well as migrating Peregrine Falcons caught on the gulf coast of Texas, back to their breeding grounds in Canada.

The principle behind the work is simple: birds are what they eat. And what birds eat while growing feathers on the breeding grounds contains isotopes of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen. These vary in predictable patterns across North America.

Duxbury will be presenting a paper on his work on Wednesday, November 5, at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Seattle, WA. Scientists there are exploring the evolving interface between isotope geochemistry and ecology.

Hydrogen and its heavier version, the isotope deuterium, are both naturally found in molecules of rain water. But as the cycle of evaporation and precipitation repeats across North America and over mountainous regions, the heavier deuterium isotopes get left behind. That creates well-mapped hydrogen/deuterium trends across the continent, Duxbury explains.

"There is a well known gradient of depleting deuterium/hydrogen ratios from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean across the eastern part of North America," said Duxbury. As you get near mountains there is also a noticeable elevation effect that reflects how changes in elevation also cause precipitation cycles.

The hydrogen isotope signature of animals is essentially the isotope signature found in the wa
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Contact: Ann Cairns
acairns@geosociety.org
303-357-1056
Geological Society of America
5-Nov-2003


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