Potential age differences in the migratory behaviour of a nocturnal songbird migrant during autumn and spring

Schmaljohann, Heiko; Müller, Florian; Klinner, Thomas; eikenaar, cas

4 May 2018

In migratory songbirds, older individuals are thought to be more efficient migrants than younger individuals. Age-specific differences in migratory efficiency have been reported mainly in respect of arrival timing, energy stores, rate of energy accumulation, departure behaviour, and departure direction. Yet, these traits were rarely assessed simultaneously in a single species. We further lack information whether age-specific differences in behavioural traits present in autumn still manifest to the same degree in spring. Here we used the northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), a long-distance nocturnal songbird migrant, and investigated age-specific differences in energy stores at capture (autumn: 1059 birds/spring: 803 birds), rate of energy accumulation (168/147), nocturnal departure timing (126/105), and departure direction (94/77) for both seasons. We found that in autumn, young northern wheatears departed significantly later in the night than older birds. This difference was not observed in spring. The resulting advance in nocturnal departure timing by young birds from autumn to spring may be due to learning based on experience gained during autumn, and/or to selective disappearance of those young individuals showing late departure times during autumn. We found no age-specific difference in any of the other migratory traits investigated. To get a better understanding of age effects in songbird migrants, we need to study the potential adjustments of migratory behaviour within the individual over its life time. By individually tracking songbirds throughout their lifetime, we could start estimating whether a certain migratory decision (fuelling, departure, orientation) translates into higher (or lower) fitness, and whether individuals adjust their migratory behaviour based on learning from “wrong decisions”.