Physical condition and stress levels during early development reflect feeding rates and predict pre- and post-fledging servival in nearshore seabird

Publication Date



The effects of acute environmental stressors on reproduction in wildlife are often difficult to measure because of the labour and disturbance involved in collecting accurate reproductive data. Stress hormones represent a promising option for assessing the effects of environmental perturbations on altricial young; however, it is necessary first to establish how stress levels are affected by environmental conditions during development and whether elevated stress results in reduced survival and recruitment rates. In birds, the stress hormone corticosterone is deposited in feathers during the entire period of feather growth, making it an integrated measure of background stress levels during development. We tested the utility of feather corticosterone levels in 3- to 4-week-old nestling brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) for predicting survival rates at both the individual and colony levels. We also assessed the relationship of feather corticosterone to nestling body condition and rates of energy delivery to nestlings. Chicks with higher body condition and lower corticosterone levels were more likely to fledge and to be resighted after fledging, whereas those with lower body condition and higher corticosterone levels were less likely to fledge or be resighted after fledging. Feather corticosterone was also associated with intracolony differences in survival between ground and elevated nest sites. Colony-wide, mean feather corticosterone predicted nest productivity, chick survival and post-fledging dispersal more effectively than did body condition, although these relationships were strongest before fledglings dispersed away from the colony. Both reproductive success and nestling corticosterone were strongly related to nutritional conditions, particularly meal delivery rates. We conclude that feather corticosterone is a powerful predictor of reproductive success and could provide a useful metric for rapidly assessing the effects of changes in environmental conditions, provided pre-existing baseline variation is monitored and understood.

Author Supplied Keywords

Body condition, Energy delivery, Feather corticosterone, Nest productivity, Stressors


Sea birds--Behavior--Endocrine aspects; Brown pelican; Animal ecophysiology





Document Type

Journal Article

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