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Hydrogen isotopic variation in migratory bird tissues of known origin: implications for geographic assignment


Continent-wide variation in hydrogen isotopic composition of precipitation is incorporated into animal diets, providing an intrinsic marker of geographic location at the time of tissue growth. Feathers from migratory birds are now frequently analyzed for stable-hydrogen isotopes (δD) to estimate the location of individuals during a preceding molt. Using known-origin birds, we tested several assumptions associated with this emerging technique. We examined hydrogen isotopic variation as a function of age, sex, feather type and the timing of molt in a marked population of American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) breeding in southeastern Ontario. We measured δD in feathers and blood from individuals that bred or hatched at our study site during the year in which those tissues were grown. Juvenile tissues from 5- to 10-day-old birds had more negative δD values than those from adults, which most likely reflected age-related differences in diet. Within adults, primary feathers had more negative δD values than contour feathers. The mean δD value in adult primary feathers was relatively consistent among years and with the value expected for our study population. However, among-individual variation in δD corresponded to an estimated latitudinal range of 6–8° (650–900 km). We conclude that feathers sampled from recently hatched juveniles may not provide a reliable estimate of expected local isotopic signatures for comparison with adult feathers of unknown origin. Furthermore, we urge researchers to use caution when using δD values in feathers to infer geographic origin, and suggest that the best approach is to assign individuals to broad geographic zones within a species’ potential molting range.

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Funding was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (L. M. R., T. K. K., K. M. L., D. R. N.), the National Science Foundation (0089565; P. P. M.), the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (T. K. K., L. M. R.), the Wilson Ornithological Society (D. R. N.), Sigma Xi (M. W. R.), the American Ornithologists’ Union (M. W. R., D. R. N.), the Society of Canadian Ornithologists (M. W. R., D. R. N.), the Ontario Government (K. M. L.), Queen’s University (M. W. R., D. R. N.) and the Smithsonian Institution (P. P. M.). Thanks to C. Studds, S. McWilliams, J. Kelly and one anonymous reviewer for helpful comments, to F. Phelan and F. Connor for logistical support at the Queen’s University Biological Station, to K. Klassen and A. Vuletich for assistance with isotope analysis, to K. Shorter and R. Zavitz for collecting and analyzing water samples, to C. Hasler for GIS help, and to our many excellent field crews for their tireless efforts.

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Correspondence to Kathryn M. Langin.

Additional information

Communicated by Mark Chappell.

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Langin, K.M., Reudink, M.W., Marra, P.P. et al. Hydrogen isotopic variation in migratory bird tissues of known origin: implications for geographic assignment. Oecologia 152, 449–457 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-007-0669-3

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  • American redstart
  • Migration
  • Molt
  • Passerine bird
  • Stable isotopes