Determinants of spring migration departure dates in a New World sparrow: Weather variables reign supreme

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Abstract

Numerous factors influence the timing of spring migration in birds, yet the relative importance of intrinsic and extrinsic variables on migration initiation remains unclear. To test for interactions among weather, migration distance, parasitism, and physiology in determining spring departure date, we used the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) as a model migratory species known to harbor diverse and common haemosporidian parasites. Prior to spring migration departure from their wintering grounds in Indiana, USA, we quantified the intrinsic variables of fat, body condition (i.e., mass ~ tarsus residuals), physiological stress (i.e., ratio of heterophils to lymphocytes), cellular immunity (i.e., leukocyte composition and total count), migration distance (i.e., distance to the breeding grounds) using stable isotopes of hydrogen from feathers, and haemosporidian parasite intensity. We then attached nanotags to determine the timing of spring migration departure date using the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. We used additive Cox proportional hazard mixed models to test how risk of spring migratory departure was predicted by the combined intrinsic measures, along with meteorological predictors on the evening of departure (i.e., average wind speed and direction, relative humidity, and temperature). Model comparisons found that the best predictor of spring departure date was average nightly wind direction and a principal component combining relative humidity and temperature. Juncos were more likely to depart for spring migration on nights with largely southwestern winds and on warmer and drier evenings (relative to cooler and more humid evenings). Our results indicate that weather conditions at take-off are more critical to departure decisions than the measured physiological and parasitism variables.

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Byrd, A. J., Talbott, K. M., Smiley, T. M., Verrett, T. B., Gross, M. S., Hladik, M. L., … Becker, D. J. (2024). Determinants of spring migration departure dates in a New World sparrow: Weather variables reign supreme. Ecology and Evolution, 14(2). https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.10874

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