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Resident birds display migratory restlessness

Studies of migratory behavior have shown that captive migratory birds demonstrate a seasonally appropriate spontaneous urge to migrate, called Zugunruhe (pronounced zook-oon-roo-ha). This behavior varies with the species studied, with amount and direction of activity reflecting the species' natural migratory distance and route, suggesting that the migratory urge is innate. In a new study published in the premier open access journal PLoS Biology, Barbara Helm and Eberhard Gwinner took a different approach and discovered that resident species who don't migrate also exhibit this behavior.

Helm and Gwinner searched for signs of migratory behavior in two subspecies of stonechats, Saxicola torquata, comparing a migrant that breeds in Austria, S. t. rubicola, and its equatorial resident relative, S. t. axillaris. European stonechats are short-distance, nocturnal migrators that begin their journey when daylight lasts just over 12 hours. Since they would otherwise be sleeping at night, nocturnal activity can serve as a proxy for Zugunruhe. African stonechats are sedentary species that do not abandon their breeding grounds in Kenya. To investigate the presence of Zugunruhe in a resident species, the researchers raised and bred the offspring of Kenyan stonechats in their lab in Germany. One group of these birds was held for the duration of a migratory period under the nearly equal light and dark conditions of their native habitat, and a subset remained under these conditions for a year and a half. A control group was exposed to the natural seasonal light fluctuations of southern Germany. Helm and Gwinner recorded the birds' nocturnal movements with infrared motion sensors, and counted the number of movements within ten-minute intervals. If 20 or more movements were noted, the interval was considered "active."

Even though the African stonechats experienced no temporal cues--light levels remained constant--their nocturnal activity roughly tracked the season. The
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Contact: Paul Ocampo
press@plos.org
415-624-1224
Public Library of Science
3-Apr-2006


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