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Snow roosting reduces temperature-associated stress in a wintering bird

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Animals in temperate northern regions employ a variety of strategies to cope with the energetic demands of winter. Behavioral plasticity may be important, as winter weather conditions are increasingly variable as a result of modern climate change. If behavioral strategies for thermoregulation are no longer effective in a changing environment, animals may experience physiological stress, which can have fitness consequences. We monitored winter roosting behavior of radio–tagged ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), recorded snow depth and temperature, and assayed droppings for fecal corticosterone metabolites (FCM). Grouse FCM levels increased with declining temperatures. FCM levels were high when snow was shallow, but decreased rapidly as snow depth increased beyond 20 cm. When grouse used snow burrows, there was no effect of temperature on FCM levels. Snow burrowing is an important strategy that appears to allow grouse to mediate the possibly stressful effects of cold temperatures. This is one of the first studies to explore how variable winter weather conditions influence stress in a free–living cold–adapted vertebrate and its ability to mediate this relationship behaviorally. Animals that depend on the snowpack as a winter refuge will likely experience increased stress and possible fitness costs resulting from the loss of snow cover due to climate change.

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We are grateful to the Ruffed Grouse Society for funding, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for funding and logistical assistance. The Merrill and Emita Hastings Foundation and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology provided additional support. This material is based upon work supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture, Hatch Projects 1006604 and 1003605. We would like to thank the staff at Sandhill Wildlife Area for their support and logistical assistance. We thank B. Heindl, A. Walker, K. Kovach, T. Gettelman, A. Elzinga, J. Ostroski, A. Bradley, A. Wilkie, and E. Leicht for many hours collecting data.

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BZ and AAS conceived and designed the study, conducted statistical analyses, and drafted initial versions of the manuscript. AAS collected field data, carried out hormone assays, and led manuscript development. MJS coordinated hormone analysis. JNP provided input on conceptual development. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript and gave final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Amy A. Shipley.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All applicable institutional and/or national guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

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Communicated by Pawel Koteja.

We demonstrate how the behavioral adaptations of overwintering species can reduce physiological stress, but that the loss of snow cover in the face of a changing climate may stretch the limits of behavioral flexibility. This is one of the first studies to explore how variable winter weather conditions influence the stress hormones of a free-living, cold-adapted vertebrate and its ability to mediate this relationship through behavioral flexibility.

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Shipley, A.A., Sheriff, M.J., Pauli, J.N. et al. Snow roosting reduces temperature-associated stress in a wintering bird. Oecologia 190, 309–321 (2019).

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