Leg length and temperature determine the use of unipedal roosting in birds

Ryeland, Julia; Weston, Michael; Symonds, Matthew

20 March 2019

The function of standing on one leg in birds has long been attributed to reducing heat loss from the unfeathered legs to the external environment. Whilst a handful of single-species studies correlate the use of the behaviour with ambient temperature, the degree to which it is used across taxa is unknown. Given that leg-length varies between species, the length of the leg (relative to body size) may mediate the use of this thermoregulatory behaviour, such that birds with longer legs should roost on one leg more than those with relatively shorter legs at any given ambient temperature. We tested this prediction through field observations and comparative analyses of nine shorebird species, with varying tarsi length relative to body size. Six of the nine species examined used unipedal standing more as temperatures decrease, indicating it’s role as a heat conservation behaviour. We also found that species with relatively longer legs roosted on one leg more frequently across a wide range of temperatures. Species with shorter leg lengths likely rely less on this posture to insulate the relatively smaller surface area of the legs. Our findings showed that the long accepted notion that birds stand on one leg more at colder temperatures, holds, and that species with smaller relative leg length were less reliant on this behaviour to minimise heat loss from these bare appendages.